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Rowbottom: Will ‘Icarus’ Fall on its Feet at the Oscars?

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Documentary film "Icarus" won an Academy Award. Photo: Netflix

In a way, Icarus – in the running to win an Academy Award for best documentary feature at this Sunday’s (March 4) Oscars Ceremony – resembles Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In that classic thriller you start off thinking the story is going to be about a robbery driven by love until the female robber, played by Janet Leigh, runs into the open maw of the real story, which is about murder driven by love.

The dynamic in this two-hour documentary by Bryan Fogel takes a similar twist – although in this case it is the director, as prime player, who experiences the shift.

As an amateur cyclist, Fogel planned to make a film demonstrating how easily anti-doping measures could be circumvented – as had happened with seven-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong – while deliberately taking EPO and other banned performance-enhancing substances before racing the testing Mavic Haute Route.

Thus the title of the film, which refers to a man who flew too high and has now fallen to earth.

“When I came up with Icarus, my metaphor was Lance,” he told bicycling.com. “To this day, he didn’t get caught based on testing but because of his arrogance, because he sued people, because of bad ethical behavior.”

He expanded on the theme to deadline.com: “Here was a guy who to this day has never actually been caught for doping.

“He has passed 500 anti-doping controls clean. The only way he was actually caught was through criminal investigation where his teammates – who did the same thing as he did – ratted him out in exchange for their own immunity. And that ultimately forced his confession.”

But the storyline of trying to highlight the loopholes in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) testing protocol mutated dramatically as he enlisted the advice of the Russian chemist Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov.

The two men got on well. And in the course of offering the American the advice he required in order to take EPO and suchlike with apparent impunity, the Russian, extraordinarily, began to reveal how he had guided Russian athletes on doing exactly the same thing on a huge scale.

History records that the evidence for this, smuggled out of Russia by Rodchenkov on a flight apparently facilitated by Fogel and his producer Dan Cogan, eventually made its way to the New York Times and prompted a previously unenthusiastic WADA to mount an investigation that eventually helped persuade the International Paralympic Committee – if not the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – to ban Russian athletes from competing at the Rio 2016 Games.

“Icarus was one piece of the evidence that the IOC used in making that decision and we’re very pleased about that,” Fogel told Deadline. “That was a proud moment as filmmakers, to be recognized in that capacity by the Olympic organization.”

Cogan adds: “I don’t see how you can let Russia back into the Olympic family until it admits that everything that Grigory said is true and that in fact there was a state-sponsored doping system that set out to scam the Olympics and the rest of the world.

“If the IOC doesn’t force Russia to do that, what good is any of this? It’s a small penalty [to ban Russia] for one Olympics but it shows the Russians that they can go on and just keep doing it. So I think there needs to be more.”

In the meantime Fogel and Cogan are awaiting on another result, tuxedos at the ready.

Icarus is not the only sporting-themed film to feature in this year’s nominations for the Academy Awards, however.

Dear Basketball, with credits for Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant, is up for an award in the animated short category.

Meanwhile, there are nominations in three categories for I Tonya – the story of the talented, troubled American ice skater Tonya Harding who became infamous during the 1994 Winter Olympics when it was alleged that she had knowledge of an attack made before the Games on her domestic rival Nancy Kerrigan.

Margot Robbie is in the running for the lead actress award, with Allison Janney up for supporting actress and Tatiana S. Riegel for film editing.

Should Icarus earn the favor of the judges on this occasion it would take its place in a distinguished line of sports-themed films that have won Oscars – although it would only be the second to win the best documentary feature award.

That distinction fell last year to OJ: Made in America, a study of the rise and fall of the former US American Football star OJ Simpson, who was charged and then controversially cleared of murdering his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and waiter Ron Goodman before later being found liable for their deaths in a civil trial.

The film, produced and directed by Ezra Edelman, was made as a five-part mini-series for ESPN and it explores themes including race, celebrity and domestic violence in telling Simpson’s story.

Three other sports-themed offerings have won the best film category. The first, in 1976, was Rocky, the colorful story of the wannabe boxer who actually became a contender, starring Sylvester Stallone. It also won the awards for best director – John G. Avildsen – and editing.

British film Chariots of Fire, detailing the achievements of 1924 Olympic champions Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell with large dashes of poetic licence, went one better in 1981, earning the laurels in four categories – best picture, original screenplay, costume design and original score.

Next to win the Oscars gold medal in 2004 was Million Dollar Baby. This is about an underappreciated boxing trainer, the mistakes that haunt him from his past and his quest for atonement by helping an underdog amateur boxer achieve her dream of becoming a professional.

Voted best picture, the film earned additional awards as Hilary Swank was named best actress, Morgan Freeman was dubbed best supporting actor and Clint Eastwood earned the accolades as director.

Icarus is up against four other contenders on Sunday – Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Faces Places, Last Men in Aleppo and Strong Island.

By Mike Rowbottom

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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