by Jeremy Fassler
Icarus, Bryan Fogel's new documentary out on Netflix, is a compelling look inside an aspect of Putin's Russia that's gotten a bit lost in the shuffle amidst all the news coming out about their election meddling: their history of using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in sports.
The project began innocuously enough. Fogel, a Los Angeles-based playwright and cycling enthusiast, intended to document himself racing in the world's hardest amateur cycling competition, the Haute Route, one year with PEDs and one year without, and see how it affected him. In one respect, the experiment failed - the year he did it without PEDs, he came in 14th, and the year he did it with them, he didn't perform as well, due to the gears on his bike breaking. The first half hour of the film represents what he intended to make, and it's a pretty standard sports documentary. But then it gets interesting.
During his experiment with PEDs, Fogel was counseled by Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian scientist who ran the Moscow lab which helped their athletes cheat the system, even though the lab had been accredited by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA). In 2015, however, thanks to mounting evidence that the Russian team in the Sochi Olympics had used PEDs, Rodchenkov fled to the United States to blow the whistle on his mother country, bringing with him hard drives worth of evidence showing the extent of this conspiracy (you can read the New York Times expose on the story from this past May here.) The documentary Fogel originally planned on making became something much better, because after its dull first half hour, when the story of Russian PED abuse breaks, the film turns into an muckraking examination of something you might not ever have been interested in learning about. In that respect, the film also documents its own making.
Even though WADA's first report, led by American attorney Richard McLaren, said that Russia must be banned from the summer Olympics in Rio, IOC president Thomas Bach was more lenient, backing a partial ban of individual athletes but leaving the door open for some of them to compete. Russia ended up competing in the games anyway, winning 19 gold medals. Whether or not the IOC will ban them from next year's winter games in South Korea remains to be seen. For those who fight for justice and fairness, there's no question that the Russians should be banned from the games. But as someone who has studied Russia up close for several years, I question whether or not concepts like justice and fairness can thrive on their soil. It is not something which they understand.
In Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky's The Passionate Heart, a landowner asks his serfs, "Should I judge you by the law, or by the heart?" and all of them, to a man, say, "Judge us by your heart!" Throughout Russia's history, they have never believed in dealing with the law the way we deal with it in America, through fair trials and juries of our peers. Russians would rather deal with everything one-on-one. If they get a speeding ticket, they'd rather pay the cop whatever he wants, and walk away with a clean record. As writer Peter Pomerantsev writes in his book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, the Russians have more words for 'bribe' than Eskimos have for 'snow.'
It's by the heart that Russia asks us to judge their crimes. When they invaded Crimea in 2014, the world knew it was an unfair seizure of land that did not belong to them, and could see through the obvious lies that Putin and the Kremlin told about their reasons for going in (my favorite was when Putin not only denied that he had deployed troops there, but that the "local militias" present had purchased their uniforms from army surplus stores.) The invasion was not just a show of military strength, to Putin, it was a crime of the heart, for Crimea had once been theirs, and by reclaiming it, they were reclaiming a part of their history. And given that almost all Russian media is subservient to him, they convinced the populace that maybe they don't need Crimea, but Russia needs it. Trying to explain the inherent unfairness of this to a Russian - as if Mexico invaded California because it had once been theirs - is not easy. And I've tried.
It's important to contextualize the invasion of Crimea with the success of the Sochi Olympics - with those events, Putin put Russia back on the map as a world power to be taken seriously. They spent $50 billion on those games, the most ever paid in IOC history, and given how much was going into them, of course he and the Russian sports ministry would want their athletes to win. Russia ended up with 33 medals from Sochi, including 13 golds, but according to the Times report, at least 15 medal winners in all were confirmed to have taken PEDs.
Trying to get the Russians to admit to this will be a fruitless act, particularly as they get ready to host the World Cup next year. Government officials have already denied any knowledge of their athletes using PEDs, and Putin has claimed he doesn't even remember Rodchenkov's name (Rodchenkov currently resides in the United States via the Witness Relocation Program.) Like the government we have in our country now, they lie, lie, lie, until the press realizes they will never hear what they want. They won, they showed the world how strong they are, and, given sports' place within the Russian government, and the international stage of the Olympics, what does it matter to them that they cheated? Again, don't judge them by the law, judge them by their heart.
It remains to be seen whether Russia can fully join the world in not just embracing western liberalism, but in embracing fairness and equality as shared societal goals. Their long history of cheating, skimming money off the top for the wealthy, and denying any wrongdoing, has made them the savvy manipulators of the truth that they are today. Bryan Fogel's documentary may not be perfect, but as a look into the character of a nation, it is fascinating.