When he set out to make Icarus, the playwright and actor Bryan Fogel had one goal: to examine how easy it is to get away with doping in professional sport. An enthusiastic amateur cyclist, he was disturbed by the fact that someone like Lance Armstrong could cheat for so many years and never fail a single drug test. “Originally,” he explains in the film, “the idea I had was to prove the system in place to test athletes was bullshit.”
What actually happened was a bit like tugging on an errant thread and having the entire clothing industry unravel right on top of you. Fogel, while conducting a human guinea-pig experiment in which he took performance-enhancing drugs to prepare for a race, was connected with a Russian doctor who ended up blowing the whistle on a state-sponsored doping scheme that had been ongoing in Russia for decades. Icarus, initially intended as a Super Size Me–style effort to poke holes in the anti-doping system, ended up capturing the maelstrom of one of the biggest scandals in sporting history, while former anti-doping officials were dying under mysterious circumstances and the IOC was pondering whether Russia should be banned outright from the 2016 Rio Olympics.
It’s fair, then, to call Icarus a coup for a first-time documentarian, the product of both dumb luck and a strange rapport between Fogel and Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who is the director of Moscow’s anti-doping center when Fogel first meets him via Skype in 2014. The first 40 minutes of the film—released on Netflix on Friday—focus on Fogel’s efforts to game the system while competing in the Haute Route, an annual event in that Alps that he describes as “the single hardest amateur bike race in the world.” The first time he competed, drug-free, he came in 14th out of 440. This time he wants to do better, using the race to prove that if “I could get away with it, that would mean that pretty much any athlete could do it and get away with it.”