By Anna Husted EBS Contributor
I couldn’t help but think of the Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow kid comedy, “Heavy Weights,” while watching the 2017 Oscar-winning documentary “Icarus.” Stiller’s super-athlete camp director character in “Heavy Weights” tells the story of the Greek mythological figure Icarus whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun, and he fell to his death.
In the film, Stiller says “we are all like Icarus” to a bunch of overweight middle schoolers. While Stiller’s remark is in the spirit of comedy, the documentary “Icarus” suggests the same: in our expectations of great athletes we push them to a level beyond what is ethical.
“Icarus” is told from the perspective of its director, Bryan Fogel, who wants to find out why his hero Lance Armstrong chose to take performance enhancing drugs. Fogel decides to go on a strict doping regimen to see if it changes his own cycling performance. He teams up with Russian World Anti-Doping Agency scientist Grigory Rodchenkov for the experiment.
What transpires is more than Fogel planned. Not only does he discover what happens to his body when he takes performance-enhancing drugs, but he and Rodchenkov uncover one of the greatest doping scandals in the history of sports: Almost all Russian Olympic athletes have been doping for decades.
Without giving away how deep the Russian athlete doping scandal runs, the issue of doping in the Olympics or the Tour de France goes beyond issues of right or wrong. If many, or perhaps most, athletes are doping, and we know professional sports have a long history of doping, why do we expect otherwise? We want athletes to win fairly, but we don’t want to pay them fairly or watch dull competition.
“Icarus” explores the many facets behind doping in sports, including the human component. In following Rodchenkov, who worked for the World Anti-Doping Agency as a drug tester for decades, Fogel shows us that, for Russians, choosing not to take performance-enhancing drugs could be a life or death choice.
“Icarus” starts out with a bang, but ends with a whimper. With investigations still ongoing, too much is left unanswered, but it opens up a deeper contemplation of this international issue. Rodchenkov reads from George Orwell’s “1984” multiple times throughout “Icarus,” but the standout quote for me was “there is strength in ignorance.”
Perhaps we want to remain ignorant of the questions “Icarus” proposes. Are other nations also doping and it just hasn’t come to light yet? Does doping even make someone a better athlete? Do we take into account that Russian athletes do not have the freedom of choice? Is justice separate from politics?
“Icarus” is available for streaming on Netflix.
Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema or on the slopes. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s running, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.