The very idea of a drug-free Olympic Games or Tour de France simply displays a naïve trust in an international anti-doping system that has been proven time and again to be fundamentally flawed
George Murray
George Murray is a Masters student at the University of Manchester studying International Development. Before that he worked in financial consultancy, specialising in heritage, tourism and visitor attractions.
Clean sport is an illusion
14th June 2017, 12:10

Clean sport is an illusion. The very idea of a drug-free Olympic Games or Tour de France simply displays a naïve trust in an international anti-doping system that has been proven time and again to be fundamentally flawed.

That’s the view of amateur cyclist-turned filmmaker Bryan Fogel, expressed at a question and answer session that followed a screening of his new film Icarus at England’s Sheffield Documentary Festival 2017.

Icarus begins as an experiment in the style of Supersize Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock attempted to live solely on McDonald’s fast food for a month, with Fogel bidding to expose the frailties of doping control by shooting his thighs full of testosterone, EPO and other performance-enhancing drugs undetected.

His barometer for measuring the effects of doping is the Haute Route, a gruelling seven-day cycling stage race over some of the French Alps’ most iconic climbs. Fogel, a talented and experienced cyclist, completes the race clean and finishes well in 2014, before searching for a doctor to design a doping programme that Lance Armstrong himself would have considered a little on the reckless side.

Fogel’s search for an accomplice and professional cheat leads him to the now-notorious Grigory Rodchenkov, the corrupt scientist who later turned whistleblower and who was at the epicentre of Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal. 

Rodchenkov, the former director of the World Anti Doping Agency-accredited Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory, was the mastermind behind the (alleged) systematic doping programme endorsed by then Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko and by Vladimir Putin himself.


Rodchenkov is now widely regarded as having been the global expert in enabling athletes to perform beyond the constraints of natural physiology without being caught  

He is now widely regarded as having been the global expert in enabling athletes to perform beyond the constraints of natural physiology without being caught, his influence even greater than that of the notorious Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, whose list of clients included virtually every great cyclist of the 1990 and early 2000s.

And yet, after a year of needles, pill-popping and smuggled urine samples, the Rodchenkov-designed doping programme fails to help Fogel improve on his Haute Route position in 2015. In fact, thanks in part to a major mechanical problem with his electronic derailleur on one stage of the race (mechanical groupset enthusiasts have permission to look smug), Fogel actually finishes his dirty race in a significantly lower position than his clean race.

But Icarus isn’t really about Fogel’s failed attempt to dope himself to victory. The story develops into something much greater. As Icarus progresses, the audience becomes increasingly exposed to Rodchenkov as a character. He is, quite simply, a force of nature. Brilliantly funny, inherently warm and strikingly open, you can’t help but admire the man. For anyone with an ethical compass, it is a bizarre position to be in.

Rodchenkov becomes the anti-hero in an epic story of deceit and corruption, as the apparent extent of the Russian state’s involvement in systematic doping is unravelled. Following the mysterious death of Nikita Kamayev, the former chief of Rusada, the Russian anti-doping agency, it becomes apparent to Rodchenkov that his own life might be in danger. So he escapes to USA, to join his friend and ally Fogel. Here, Rodchenkov offers confessions to Fogel in the vein of Armstrong’s Oprah Winfrey mea culpa about his own involvement in doping Russian athletes and state sponsoring of his doping programme.

Icarus presents an insightful view into how KGB agents were able to replace dirty urine in WADA-approved, supposedly un-openable bottles with frozen clean samples during the Sochi 2014 winter Olympics, using a system of holes in walls, back doors and hidden laboratories reminiscent of a crime-thriller novel. But this strategy of smoke and mirrors subterfuge feels too primitive to fully justify the assertions of Rodchenkov, Fogel and others that the Olympic Games could not be won clean.


Rodchenkov is, quite simply, a force of nature. Brilliantly funny, inherently warm and strikingly open, you can't help but admire the man  

The film cites George Orwell’s 1984 in placing Rodchenkov’s role in the context of far greater levels of corruption. Rodchenkov is the very embodiment of Orwell’s idea of doublespeak. He is simultaneously both a hero and a villain. He is a self-confessed cheat, yet also a whistleblower. He is fundamentally unethical, but inherently likeable. He is completely open, yet a master of deceit. It is in this duality that the messages of Icarus can be found; because doping and therefore the international effort to eradicate doping from sport are just like Rodchenkov.

Athletes must win by any means necessary, but they must not dope (c.f. Armstrong). They must use every legal drug, stimulant, vitamin, recovery drink and TUE available to them, but must do so ethically (c.f. Bradley Wiggins). They must allow their coaches and support staff to run and manage every facet of their existence, but must also be in full control of everything they put inside their bodies despite constantly-changing regulations (c.f. Maria Sharapova).

Rusada, an anti-doping agency, actually facilitated doping. Rodchenkov’s Moscow lab was WADA-accredited, yet was the centre of state-sponsored doping. Testing continues to advance, yet athletes still find ways to cheat the system.

Like Rodchenkov’s character, the world of doping and anti-doping is full of paradoxes and contradictions. Icarus brings these contradictions to the surface, and questions them. The film reveals that the world of doping and anti-doping is not binary; it is highly complex, both ethically and practically.

At a time when sport means so much financially and politically, is it really feasible to expect WADA and those engaged in the fight against doping to stay one step ahead? 

Sportcal