Icarus, which premiered on Netflix on August 4, challenges viewers to imagine a version of recent history that’s both incredible and empirically true. For decades, the Russian state has sponsored a widespread secret program that administers performance-enhancing drug protocols to world-class athletes and then seeks to prevent antidoping officials from identifying and disqualifying them. Over a period of four years, filmmaker and serious amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel followed his interest in the fact that his former idol, Lance Armstrong, managed to avoid testing positive for doping into a labyrinth of lies that eventually came apart when Russian doping, the largest scandal in the history of sports, was exposed. Operating under extreme pressure as a result of his close relationship with the film’s subject, Russian sports medicine czar Grigory Rodchenkov, Fogel and his team of producers managed to blow the whistle on the Russian doping conspiracy, get Russian track-and-field athletes barred from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, and very likely save the life of Rodchenkov, who is now living anonymously in the United States under a federal witness protection program.
Fogel appeared at the Lobero on Thursday, August 10, and took questions from Roger Durling and the audience after a Santa Barbara Film Society screening of Icarus. His investigative journey began when he acted on a dangerous impulse: To prove that what Armstrong did was still possible, Fogel embarked on a doping program of his own, taking multiple performance-enhancing drugs in preparation for the Haute Route race, a grueling alpine cycling event with up to seven stages that’s open to the world’s top amateurs. In the course of pursuing this dangerous scheme, Fogel met Rodchenkov, who helped him plan his strategy to dope himself and to outwit the testing system. Things got crazy when Rodchenkov became the subject of an international inquiry and fled Russia with Fogel’s help. In the months that followed, the two men collaborated, not only on the film, but on the disclosures that led to the disqualification of Russian athletes from thousands of competitions. The case, which is still resonating within the world of sports, has larger implications, especially given recent political developments in the United States. Icarus, which won a special George Orwell Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, uses multiple media to tell a fascinating story that’s still hard to believe, even after having been proved.