I wonder sometimes how it felt to be Paul Newman.
More specifically, I wonder sometimes how it felt to be “Cool Hand” Luke Jackson.
I don’t wonder what it would be like to be stuck in the same prison as Luke, but I wonder what it would be like to live in a world that was stacked against you; a world where the powers that be chose to ignore nobility and perpetuate injustice for the sake of the system they built. In my everyday life, I don’t experience a world like that, but after watching the recently released documentary Icarus I have come to believe that I compete in one.
Icarus is the creation of filmmaker Bryan Fogel. He set out to tell the story of the time he went on performance enhancing drugs, to illustrate how simple the act of doping could be in professional and semi-professional sports. “Originally,” he explains in the film, “the idea I had was to prove the system in place to test athletes was bullshit.” About 40 minutes into the movie however, he tumbles into a rabbit hole and the movie instead becomes a set of blueprints for a Russian-state doping machine.
I’m not going to spoil all the depths of depravity that are alleged in this film for anyone, you should all go and watch this movie for yourself (it’s available on Netflix now.) What troubled me the most about this movie was not the sordid details of how such a doping system was executed without consequence; in fact, the middle hour of the film was fascinating, like Ocean’s 11 from some alternate universe where George Clooney is a mustached man named Grigory, and Brad Pitt is Vladimir Putin. What hurt me about this movie was the conclusion. The conclusion that showed the totality of evidence facing the International Olympic Committee, and the IOC’s subsequent rejection of responsibility in the face of that evidence.
I cannot do justice to the damning stories about this doping ring in a blog post so I urge you to go watch it yourself and to read some of the great journalism that brought these injustices to light in the first place. I’m only here to say how, as an athlete who hopes to go to an Olympics, it made me feel.
I watched this movie with my teammates. Crowded on a couch in a small apartment in a place far away from most of our homes, where we moved to chase a dream of athletic excellence, we watched a systematic and painful explanation of all the ways in which competitors have allegedly cheated, and the way in which the IOC failed to respond to that information with anything approaching rationality. It was heartbreaking. In one of the movie’s final sequences, a series of shots were played in reverse, from the press conference in which the IOC said it would allow Russian athletes to compete in Rio, all the way back to Sochi Games where the Olympic flame (in reverse now) was extinguished. I looked up around the room. It was almost startling to realize that several of the people there had been at those games. They had been in the stadium where Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC had given a speech about fair play, and they had just spent two hours being told that it was all a lie. I didn’t know what to say to them. I wanted to say something, but what can you say? Against such brutal reality, such rampant dereliction of duty, what can you say? Is any amount of idealism about sport enough to combat that type of darkness?
My teammate Simi got up and closed the laptop.
“That’s not why we ski.”
“It’s more than results, and we can only do our best, but that’s… I mean it’s just not why we ski right?”
“Yeah.” I said “But it still sucks.”
The McLaren Report can be found here