By John Marsh, Editor & Publisher
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced last week that it had banned Russia’s Olympic team, government officials and its flag from the upcoming 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The unprecedented action was taken as a result of findings in investigations by the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) into Russia’s systemic, government-backed doping program. The penalty, and much background on the investigations and ramifications, are detailed in The New York Times, which broke the story of Russia’s doping program in May 2016.
“The ruling was the final confirmation that the nation was guilty of executing an extensive state-backed doping program,” the Times reported last week. “The scheme was rivaled perhaps only by the notorious program conducted by East Germany throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.”
Both the Times’ original article and the fascinating Netflix documentary “Icarus” feature a detailed first-person account into the Russian system by Grigory Rodchenkov, the scientist who for 10 years served as Russia’s anti-doping lab chief and was instrumental in carrying out a massive cheating scheme and elaborate cover-up at the Sochi Games as the culmination of his lab’s work to assist Russian athletes in their doping protocol up to, and during, the Sochi Games.
Icarus: A Cycling Doping Story Gone Off the Rails
“Icarus,” the award-winning documentary by Bryan Fogel (it won the first-ever Orwell Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival) did not start out as documentary about Russia’s systemic doping program. Instead, it was a quest by filmmaker and talented amateur cyclist Fogel to gauge the value of a doping program in his attempt to improve his performance in the ultra-tough Haute Route race – a 7-stage amateur race through the Alps and Pyrenees that is said to be tougher than the Tour de France.
After training and racing strongly in his first attempt, and being as physically wiped out as he could imagine, he wondered how the racers who finished ahead of him could have done so much better. So he sought to attempt to dope his way to improvement the next time out, and to document the process.
In doing so, he eventually hooked up with Grigory Rodchenkov, who agreed to plan and facilitate his doping program, including testing his urine in Russia’s anti-doping lab ahead of his race to ensure no positive tests should Fogel be tested at the Haute Route race.
In the midst of the already fascinating dive into the mundane minutia of following a strict doping protocol – a series of self-administered injections into his thighs and buttocks, bruising and bleeding at the injection sites, the taking of regular urine samples, doctor visits and, oh yeah, a LOT of hard training – Rodchenkov’s life unravels before the cameras as a German media outlet, and then the Times, breaks the stories about the Russian’s doping system, and Rodchenkov’s leading-man role in the sordid affair.
Ironically, even though the doping led to a 100-watt power improvement, Fogel had a series of mechanical issues and simply did not perform as well the second time out as the first. But, serendipitously, he had befriended the man at the epicenter of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program.
So, he shifted gears and focused the rest of the documentary on Rodchenkov, who provided a detailed accounting of his and his lab’s activities through repeated Olympic cycles, up to the massive scam at the Sochi Olympics that eventually proved the undoing of the entire house of cards.
If you have a couple of spare hours over the holidays, you might check out this completely enthralling documentary: https://www.netflix.com/title/80168079.
As a follow up to the movie, check out Rich Roll’s podcast where he interviews Fogel about the movie. Roll does a very good 2 hour interview.
Superb review. Also, check out Aubrey Marcus’ podcast interview of Lance Armstrong for additional insight regarding the nearly ubiquitous doping scenario: https://www.aubreymarcus.com/blogs/aubrey-marcus/124-the-process-of-success-and-overcoming-disaster-with-lance-armstrong
For additional background read SPITTING IN THE SOUP: INSIDE THE DIRTY GAME OF DOPING IN SPORTS by Mark Johnson: https://www.amazon.com/Spitting-Soup-Inside-Doping-Sports/dp/1937715272
John Marsh says
Thanks. There’s one more book to add to the list, a memoir — Descent, by Thomas Dekker. I’ll likely publish a review of it next week.
Just watched Icharus. Talk about a “cloak and dagger” situation!!! When you start talking about putting people in asylums and assassinating others, you certainly achieve a high level of drama. Not sure why I’m surprised at how political sports can be.
Doping and the money that drives it has turned pro and Olympic sport (same, same) into plain entertainment. And this combo been around a long time. More recently, remember the look of disbelief on the face of and subsequent belly-aching by Carl Lewis when Ben Johnson cleaned his clock (so to speak) at the Seoul Olympics? See #9 in this for the background:
You would do better describing the Froome’s doping case – proved by analytical findings and not the story from the mentally-unstable person.
Or the Wiggins’ jiffy-bag.
The Great Britain state-backing doping program in cycling is much more plausible that this Russia state-backing program.
John Marsh says
Actually, I’ll be talking about Froome’s case next week.
But I completely disagree with you about your last statement in terms of the plausibility of the Russian program. Even the corrupt IOC finally had to admit that the evidence gathered by WADA and others was so overwhelming that it could no longer be overlooked out of political expediency. In short, Russia deserved the same sanction at the last Olympics.
As for the GB cycling program, well, we may not have heard the last of the inquiries into that.