Catlin Perspective on Netflix Documentary ‘Icarus’ and Russian Doping

By Oliver Catlin

Icarus coverWith the high-profile “Icarus” documentary now available on Netflix and in selected movie theaters, I wanted to take a moment to provide perspective on some points my father, anti-doping pioneer Dr. Don H. Catlin, and I have considered in regards to “Icarus” and Russian doping in general.

We offer a warning to those who have not yet seen the film that the following contains some spoilers.

Participation in ‘Icarus’ Documentary

When a documentary maker contacts my father looking for help for an anti-doping piece, he tries to lend his support and expertise whenever possible. He did so with Bryan Fogel, even though he was unfamiliar with Fogel’s previous work. In his request for participation, Fogel stated that the primary aim of his film would be a historical review of anti-doping scientific developments and a discussion of my father’s many achievements in the field and anything else my father wanted to discuss. Fogel also mentioned an interest in doping himself prior to riding in a top amateur cycling race to hopefully demonstrate he could beat the anti-doping system. “You are the expert on the subject—I am the filmmaker… let’s discuss and formulate a schedule and a plan and hopefully be aligned!” he wrote in his pitch.

As a key expert at the highest levels of sports drug testing for more than three decades, Don was excited to have an opportunity to share his historical insights about a myriad of professional experiences and developments in the field. Though he hesitated at the thought of helping someone to dope or attempt to game a system he had helped to build, he found himself curious how doping might impact someone in a real-world race environment. Fogel, however, was eager to discuss how difficult it was to evade detection and where the current holes in the system might be and how they could be exploited. Don shared some discussion with Fogel about the filmmaker’s ideas, but orchestrating the doping activity or trying to demonstrate that the current anti-doping system could be thwarted was not something my father was interested in doing.

About Grigory Rodchenkov

Over the years, my father has crossed paths with many other capable, dedicated scientists in the anti-doping field. He has enjoyed working with this committed group to help build the best anti-doping system possible for the protection of sport and the athletes. When Fogel asked if there was anyone he knew who might be able to help with his doping agenda, my father believed his dedicated colleagues, especially those in WADA-accredited labs, would decline as he did. Without question, most of them have high ethical standards and scrupulous laboratory practices, and take pride in their anti-doping work. He could think of only one person who might be willing to assist Fogel: Grigory Rodchenkov, then the director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory in Moscow.

My father had known Rodchenkov for many years and respected his scientific work but over time was less certain of his ethics. While my father could never have imagined how extensive the Russian state-sponsored doping and its cover-up were at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics under the direction of Rodchenkov, he did believe Rodchenkov was operating in a different realm than the rest of his colleagues.

My father and others in the anti-doping community had been suspicious of Russia’s doping activity for many years. Prior to the airing of the earth-shattering ARD exposés in Germany in 2015 and 2016, allegations of widespread malfeasance in Russian track and field were publicly reported in 2014 with the help of courageous athletes by the ARD’s award-winning journalist Hajo Seppelt.

Some Context About Russian Doping

Russian state-sponsored doping of its top athletes has likely been going on for years. At one point in “Icarus,” Fogel raises the possibility that it goes all the way back to 1968. Thanks to the Russian magazine Smena, we know that in 1988, prior to the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviet team was pre-tested aboard a ship offshore. The Soviets purportedly wanted to ensure their doped athletes could pass the IOC tests. Victor Uralets, the director of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory from 1980 to 1992, essentially corroborated this story publicly in 2016 and indicated that he left the lab because he did not believe what he was being asked to do was ethical or safe. He now works at a testing lab in Northern California where he no longer has to deal with what he described as the embarrassment involved with cheating. We commend Victor for having the courage to leave a corrupt system.

In 2002, at the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City, two Russian cross-country skiers, as well as a Spanish cross-country skier, were suspended after testing positive for darbepoetin alfa, a new form of the blood-booster EPO, or erythropoietin. It was the first time the test, developed by the French scientist Dr. Françoise Lasne, had been employed successfully. My father, who oversaw the drug testing at these Olympics, martialed the introduction of this new test that produced these historic positive results. Perhaps these early findings were merely the tip of the iceberg in the larger scheme of Russian doping that has been unveiled.

A Silver Lining

One small bit of silver lining loosely discussed in “Icarus” is the actual effects of doping on Fogel’s cycling performance, which decreased the year he rode dirty. By originally dedicating himself to training, proper nutrition, and riding clean, Fogel came in 14th place in the Haute Route Alps in 2014, 4th in his 40 – 49 age class. With a focus on doping, beating the system, and riding with a dirty mentality the following year, he came in 27th place and 12th in his age class. While a mechanical issue impaired a direct comparison of the two performances, we are left to wonder what the real effect of his doping might have been. Did it improve performance or did it hinder it, as Fogel’s results appear to show?

Fogel described it being easier to train and recover when he was doping, that the banned substances made it mentally easier to perform at a high level. When you are in a race situation and constantly challenging your maximum capability, however, is such an effect really beneficial? Or could the mental strength necessary to overcome suffering exhibited by clean riders sometimes actually enhance performance more than banned drugs? The mental capacity to deal with suffering and pain is vital in the grueling sport of cycling, and we wonder if that is actually diminished if one makes the sport easier by doping.

Many people will probably view “Icarus” and be dismayed as we were by its sordid tale of Russian doping, but we are also buoyed by the larger picture. We must remember it was not Rodchenkov or Fogel who were responsible for unveiling the ugly truth of state-sponsored Russian doping; it was the courageous athletes caught in its web, such as Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaliy, who at great risk to themselves came forward to expose what was happening. The athletes themselves are driving change and endorsing clean sport more and more, and that is extremely powerful.

Oliver Catlin is President of BSCG (Banned Substances Control Group), a leading dietary supplement testing and certification provider since 2004. A graduate of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, he has worked as an executive in the anti-doping and dietary supplement industries for nearly fifteen years.