Netflix's Thrilling Documentary On The Russian Doping Machine Can't Be Missed

An amateur cyclist and an anti-doping researcher flew too close to the sun in "Icarus," but survived to tell the tale.

You can tell that “Icarus” is going to be unlike anything you’ve seen before around the point where the head of a Russian anti-doping laboratory appears, shirtless, on a video call to help American cyclist Bryan Fogel secretly dope his way through a race.

“There [was] a bromance,” Fogel told HuffPost about his friendship with the Russian researcher at the center of the new Netflix documentary.

As an amateur cyclist, Fogel idolized professionals such as Lance Armstrong only to watch their legacies fall apart through doping scandals. To illustrate how a cyclist could get away with such blatant cheating, Fogel teamed up with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a charismatic and kooky character who coached him through drug tests as he aggressively doped. Rodchenkov’s participation, however, had to be done in secret, so he could keep his job running the anti-doping lab.

Much of the first part of “Icarus,” which debuts Friday, shows Fogel injecting himself with needle after needle, appearing to get stronger and stronger as he trains for his test race. When he eventually competes ― something he had done the year before, clean ― he gets a flat tire on the first day, seemingly wrecking his entire experiment.

“I simply had a literally, ‘Fuck, this movie is done,’ moment,” Fogel said. “Here in this moment at the end of this whole route, I would say was my lowest time. Which I didn’t tell my producers and my investors or my crew, but personally I was feeling that I was at a low moment.”

But then, as happens an increasingly unbelievable number of times throughout the story, things get much, much crazier.

“It was like peeling back layers of an onion,” Fogel said, “And every single day, you’re realizing that this is bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger than you even imagined.”

Unbeknownst to Fogel when he began filming, Rodchenkov had been orchestrating a widespread doping operation for Russian Olympic athletes. He specifically coordinated these efforts at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

At the end of his doped race, Fogel felt his movie was a failure. But mere weeks later, he would come to learn what Rodchenkov had done. And his connection to the researcher allowed Fogel to shine a light on what he calls “the single biggest scandal in sport history and Olympic history.”

“This was a daily feeling of life and death.”

- Bryan Fogel on the creation of "Icarus"

Fogel’s revelation came after discovering that World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigators had been closing in on the Russians’ scheme, causing corruption-fueled upheaval at Rodchenkov’s lab.

“They released the findings of this investigation ― that is when I obviously had a startling revelation because I certainly didn’t understand the extent of his involvement at that point,” Fogel said. “And here he was essentially being called the ‘mastermind’ of this project. And 70 pages of this report is about him, but still, it was the smoking gun. There wasn’t blood and bodies and bullets at that point.”

Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel.
Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel.

So, after his first, failed race, Fogel’s “Icarus” becomes an amazing story about how Rodchenkov slowly came clean about his role in the doping scandal ― and the fallout he faced afterward.

Having come out of the shadows in the wake of the investigation, Rodchenkov started to feel unsafe in Russia. Fogel put him up in a Los Angeles safe house, and later, two of Rodchenkov’s Russian coworkers with knowledge of the scandal wound up dead in mysterious ways. Fogel remembered beginning to feel uneasy, himself.

“At some point, I realized that I’m essentially sitting on a nuclear bomb,” he said. Later, he recalled “a daily feeling of life and death.”

Some time afterward, the duo went to The New York Times with information on the full extent of Rodchenkov’s secrets, sharing many revelations that went beyond the initial WADA report. Rodchenkov became the source and center of a bombshell 2016 story about Russian state-run doping at the Olympics.

In “Icarus,” Rodchenkov claims that culpability for both the anti-doping program and the killings goes all the way up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The administration has repeatedly denied any part.

Rodchenkov is now in a witness protection program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Adam Berry via Getty Images

Fogel remains frustrated that the Russian sports program ― and the government allegedly overseeing it ― have survived with only a mild slap on the wrist. Many Russian athletes were still allowed to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and other competitions.

“This has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, scientifically, forensically, by documents, meta data, et cetera,” Fogel said. “And they’re still denying it. So I think it’s an amazing window into not only the Russian Ministry, but what is going on in our current world affairs.”

Perhaps doping is the focus of this movie, but it clearly also gives an amazing and rare insight into the innerworkings of Putin’s Russia. Paced like a thriller, “Icarus” is the rare documentary that’s both incredibly exciting to watch and helpful in understanding a deeply unsettling reality.

Watch the trailer below:

“Icarus” debuts on Netflix Aug. 4.