Q&A with Richard McLaren, Western prof featured in Oscar-winning doc Icarus

The Western law professor played a central role in the film, which revealed the extent of Russian doping in sport and won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary on Sunday.

The Academy Award-winning documentary revealed the extent of Russian doping in the 2014 Olympics

A 2016 report by investigator Richard McLaren uncovered evidence of a state-sponsored doping system inside Russia at the Sochi Olympics and beforehand. (Valentin Flauraud/The Associated Press)

Western University law professor Richard McLaren was one of the key sources in Icarusthe 2017 film that won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary at Sunday's awards. 

In 2016, McLaren released the McLaren Report, which was commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to investigate state-sponsored doping in Russian athletics. 

McLaren, who attended the Academy Awards and watched the Icarus team receive the honour, spoke with Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre about the experience and what the win means for his work.

Chris dela Torre (CDT): Did you know that this Oscar win was coming?

RM: No. I knew that when they did some of the filming of me they were going to try and put it in for an Oscar. The filming was done more than a year ago. But I didn't think it had that much of a chance — I didn't think the subject matter would have the interest it's turned out to have.  So it was a complete surprise when they were nominated and an even better surprise when they won.

CDT: I'm curious to know how your involvement in the investigation, and also in the film, has changed your life.  Because anyone who has seen Icarus – or even seen the trailer – would know that there's some darkness to this. I mean, lives have been lost.

RM: Yes there is some darkness to it, and it's changed my life in many ways. The most dramatic I suppose is the careful scrutiny that I have to give to my email and all forms of communication, and be watchful of what's going on around me.

But I've always wanted to go to the Oscars – never thought I'd be able to do that, let alone to be in one of the movies that's actually won an Oscar. So it's changed my life in a number of ways.

CDT: That's definitely a positive, but in your day-to-day life how worried are you for your safety or that of your loved ones?

RM: I'm not that worried now. The investigation's over, the reports are made. The Russians still don't accept what's being said in the reports, but the rest of the world does, including obviously the Academy by choosing Icarus as the documentary winner.

And while I'm still very careful about my own security and safety, I think the risks are much diminished from what they were when I was carrying out the work a year ago.

CDT: What does this win mean for the efforts to expose Russian doping?

RM: I think it's going to, yet again, put questions in front of the International Olympic Committee about how they handled dealing with the information that's in the reports. I'm sure that the Russian Federation authorities will have some reaction. I haven't seen any so far, but I'm sure they will have.

Long-term, though, I think what the film does is it enables people to understand a problem that exists in sport across the board. And in Russia it's even more of a problem because the state's involved in the process, as well as just athletes deciding independently that they are going to cheat by using performance enhancing drugs. So that's a big impact.

CDT: How do you think this film has impacted the way people feel about sports, and the level of trust that they give this kind of competition?

RM: A number of people who have spoken to me after looking at the film have asked that very question — should I really be suspicious about what's going on in sport and trust the results? I mean, I think everybody has to make their own decision about that. But it's definitely a problem that's clearly affecting sport, and in this case with the Russians — particularly with the Winter Olympic Games in Russia in 2014 — it was a massive fraud on the whole sporting world.

CDT: Did your investigation and your involvement in this film make you feel differently about sports?

RM: Absolutely, yes. And I've been involved in previous investigations, the highest profile one being with Senator Mitchell in the Major League Baseball inquiry. And that taught me a lot about what's going on in professional sport in North America, but also what's going on in doping around the world.  And then this investigation has really emphasized to me how big this problem is, and how difficult it is to get the different sport bodies to react in an appropriate way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.