After watching the Academy Award-winning documentary Icarus, you are left with a couple of questions. One of them is whether whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov is a hero or still a cheat or both.
The second is about unfair advantage in sport or if any advantage can be deemed unfair just because one person does not have it. There are many reasons why one athlete in a competition might have an edge over another—resources, age, genetics, nutrition, coach etc.—so why then should performance-enhancing substances only be considered unethical? If “everyone” is doing it, is it still cheating?
For those who haven’t seen this film, available on online streaming platform Netflix, Icarus is a multi-layered documentary that won the Oscar last Sunday. Filmmaker Bryan Fogel starts the story as an amateur cyclist who wants to experiment with performance-enhancing drugs to prove, among other things, how easy they are to access and how they might help in his own achievements.
During the course of his experimentation, Icarus director, co-writer and co-producer Fogel interacts with Rodchenkov, then the director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory that tested Olympic athletes. The lab’s aim, officially, is to catch drug cheats; but Rodchenkov tutors Fogel on how to take dope and get away with it.
The narrative, set between 2014 and 2016, then starts to follow Rodchenov’s story. He is a former athlete who becomes a chemist running Russia’s doping practice for sportspeople, a programme that’s been ongoing since the 1960s and, according to him, in full knowledge of the Russian administration.
Fogel helps Rodchenkov escape to the US to avoid being targeted by the Russian authorities, leading to an explosive story in The New York Times, and a full-scale investigation by the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA).
Rodchenkov admits that their programme helped about “30 dirty” Russian athletes win 73 medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. About 50% of the athletes who won the 82 medals in London 2012 were tainted and then Russia topped the medals list in the Sochi Winter Games.
The film, constructed like a spy thriller, combines telephone interviews, conversations over Skype, personal meetings and tremendous access to footage to build a gripping story that shows the world of sport in a completely different light. We have read about all this, but to see some of it actually being done?
Rodchenkov now lives in the US under their administration’s witness protection programme. Russia has denied any wrongdoings and Fogel walked home with an Oscar—a reward for making himself a guinea pig for drug use.
Though Fogel is not an investigative journalist and this did not start out with the intention of being a revelatory piece, Icarus brings to the screen what we do not see in the world of sport—what some athletes do when they are not competing, and not practicing.
Sports documentaries like these also rip the glamour out of sport—the sight of a victorious athlete celebrating in front of thousands of cheering fans, their toned bodies giving us aspirations, their paychecks filling us with envy, and their fame making us feel like underachievers. Such films talk to us of sweat and breakdowns, abuse of bodies and years of practice reduced to dust by fractions of seconds.
In Icarus, file footage shows pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva in tears while imploring Vladimir Putin for help, after Russian track and field athletes were banned from Rio over the claims of state-sponsored doping. Considered the best female vaulter ever, she has so far never failed a dope test, which, as Icarus and Lance Armstrong’s case before that show, does not mean much.
Across continents, Netflix also has a documentary on an Indian athlete—archer Deepika Kumari. Though not as inflammatory as Icarus, Ladies First highlights another aspect of the world of sport, quite prevalent in India, which is a lack of the best opportunities.
Deepika’s rise from very modest means to becoming India’s best-known archer is not just a rags-to-medals story. It’s a story of battling the odds in a different way, against limited resources, and then dealing with success or failure. The crux of the story is Deepika’s disappointments in two Olympic Games, and how she had to cope with it.
What emerges is that succeeding in the Olympics is not just about going there and shooting well. For someone with limited experience and exposure, participating in a foreign country, getting overawed by the world’s best athletes and dealing with alien conditions, is not a simple transaction.
Given their short careers, athletes are compelled to look for any advantage they can get. Already, innovations and new knowledge have made sports apparel lighter, introduced different diets and training methods. Those with access have an advantage over those without.
For example, 16-year-old Manu Bhaker, who recently became the youngest Indian to win a gold medal in World Cup shooting, practices at a manual range, not one with electronic targets. Would she be even better if she had world-class facilities at her disposal?
There is an argument—minority no doubt—to make doping legal in sports. The argument goes that if some people already have an advantage with genetics, training, diet and equipment; why not make it an open field. The athlete with the best team—that provides the necessary gear, technology and chemist—wins.
As a report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine mentions, drugs are against the rules. But we define the rules of sport. If we made drugs legal and freely available, there would be no cheating.
Documentaries and stories such as Icarus and Ladies First leave us with significant questions: What is sport in modern times? Does it justify a win-at-all-costs formula? How do you console someone who believes she lost out to a dope-tainted, but uncaught, athlete? Ultimately, what does it mean for fans?
Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, writes in his book Shoe Dog, “Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.”
The book deals with sport in another era. But is that the case today too? Don’t we suspect record-breakers to have assistance from a lab? Don’t we suspect improbable wins to be the result of fixes?
Icarus implies that dope-testing agencies will always lose out to cheaters, who have a greater incentive to find a way around being caught. Ladies First shows that a sportsperson’s success is also a consequence of her environment.
Perhaps as fans, it’s better not to look behind the scenes and only focus on the glories that television shows us. It’s like the kitchen of your favourite restaurant—once you peek in, you may never want to go back.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org