How an amateur cyclist helped expose the Russian Olympic doping scandal
"Truth is the new banned substance," reads the tagline for "Icarus," a riveting docu-thriller exploring state-sponsored doping in Russia. The film, which debuted and won awards at Sundance, will premiere on Netflix on Friday -- the same day the world's top track and field athletes will race at the IAAF World Championships in London. None of them will be competing under the Russian flag, thanks in part to "Icarus."
The documentary begins with a simple premise: To prove how easy it is to beat a drug test, amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel would dope and see if he could get away with it. Along the way, he meets the former head of Russia's anti-doping lab, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, and stumbles upon one of the biggest scandals in sports history. Ultimately, 1,000 athletes across 30 sports were implicated in Russia's state-sponsored doping program, and 111 were banned from last summer's Rio Olympics.
In the course of making "Icarus," two of Rodchenkov's colleagues died under mysterious circumstances, and the doctor himself was forced to flee to the U.S. Under investigation by the FBI, Rodchenkov told his story to The New York Times in May 2016. He is now under FBI protection. Last January, a declassified U.S. intelligence report cited the Olympic doping scandal as one of seven possible reasons Russian president Vladimir Putin allegedly ordered the hacking of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
ESPN The Magazine recently caught up with Fogel to discuss the making of "Icarus" and his role in unearthing unprecedented levels of state-sponsored corruption in sports.
What made you decide to start this project?
Cycling has been my passion throughout my life. During the [Lance] Armstrong era, the conversation was always: Did he dope? When he confessed in January 2013, I wasn't that surprised. What I was more taken by was that to this day, he's never failed a drug test. He had been tested 500 times in his career. All these anti-doping agencies are on their soapbox going: "Look what we've achieved, we've caught essentially the grand poobah of doping," but it was his teammates' testimony that took him down.
Why the title "Icarus"?
I felt that the Greek myth represented Lance's story, and the story of every fallen athlete. This guy could fly and he kept pushing and pushing and pushing. When he finally got caught, it wasn't the science; it was that he had made so many enemies in his sport. That's essentially the story of Icarus. You can fly, but if you get too close to the sun your wings are going to burn.
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Sundance Festival created the Orwell Award for "an era of post-truth, doublespeak and alternative facts" specifically for this movie. Is it bittersweet that an award for the "post-truth era" has been created?
It was an honor that they literally created an award for us. It also speaks to the political climate we're in. The poster says, "Truth is the new banned substance." I feel like that is our daily news cycle. That is exactly what is going on in this world. You don't know what to believe anymore.
Did you have reservations about putting your health at risk for a cause?
In the beginning, [yes]. But the scientists I was talking to were telling me, "They're not harmful. You're essentially taking hormones, you're taking stuff your body makes anyway. As long as you're monitoring your levels and testing your stuff, there's really no danger." They were telling me that 95 percent of the banned substances on WADA's list are not harmful. I was worried about riding my bike 70 miles per hour down mountains in the Alps. I wasn't worried about the drugs.
You wound up finishing worse than the previous year at the Haute Route -- an amateur race considered to be tougher than the Tour de France. What was the takeaway?
I had some technical issues that weren't shown [in the film]. These drugs don't make you any better of an athlete. What they allow you to do is recover. That was the biggest difference. The first year I walked out of that race and was in physical therapy for three weeks. I could barely walk. I had Achilles tendinitis, I had hip dysplasia. I trained just as hard the second year, but with the testosterone and the HGH and EPO and these vitamins injections I was taking, I was recovering.
In the film, Grigory tells you how they swapped out dirty urine for clean urine through a hole in the wall covered by a power outlet. What was your reaction?
That was just shocking. There was also a comedic aspect to it -- the absurdity of passing urine through the wall in this incredibly hi-tech age. A fake room, with a hole in the wall covered with a power outlet socket. It was like out of a bad mystery movie. When I saw those holes in the wall, I realized in that everything that Grigory was telling me was true. When I saw those photos, I knew it was real.
What went through your head when he confirmed that Putin and the state were running his lab?
It shows the flaws in WADA system. So many [labs] are owned and funded by the state. Every country wants to protect its athletes because it's ultimately Germany vs. Spain, America vs. China; sports are an extension of the government because of national pride. It's not that surprising. But the extent of the fraud, how far they went, literally breaking into the bottles and swapping out urine, that's where it gets jaw-dropping. The amazing thing is literally everything [Grigory] ended up telling us and bringing us was corroborated and scientifically proven.
What was your mindset once the story began to blow up? Did you ever think there could be legal consequences for helping him?
We were worried that this was now a life-and-death game. Two people who had information on the system both died under mysterious circumstances within two weeks of each other after [Grigory] was here in February . I certainly wasn't worried about legal ramifications in the United States. I was worried about his life, my own life, him going to jail. Was this information going to be taken from us? Was WADA going to act how they should? Was the IOC going to try to cover it up?
Can you describe the hours before you met Grigory at LAX as he was running for his life?
It was very high stakes. I didn't know the level of fraud he had been involved in. I didn't know what exactly he had done. I'm watching on Russian television and the media coverage and he's telling me his life is in danger and the FSB [Russian Federal Security Service] is in his home. I had no idea if he was going to slip through passport control. We knew he had gotten on the plane, but when he lands in L.A. it takes him three hours to get through immigration. That was really tense because there was no communication. Maybe they had put an alert in the system and he got detained at LAX. It was intense. Sure enough, he made it out.
What was it like when you met him and he said, "Escaped, alive?"
I was very happy to see that he was OK. In that moment, this was no longer making a movie, this was no longer me doping myself. A man's life was in my hands.
How much were you in fear for your life during that time?
It was constant. Incredibly emotionally stressful. The things we were going through behind the scenes were so intense, because it wasn't just the story. It was how to navigate this story. What to do with this information? In the meantime, people are dying and [Grigory] is isolated in L.A. and we don't have the protection of our government. He's being protected now, but at that time we were alone.
How did the meeting with The New York Times come about?
Well, as you see in the film, he had been subpoenaed by the Department of Justice to appear and give a statement to the FBI. We knew once he started talking, they would understand that this person was of incredibly high value, and very likely were going to give him a gag order. The only way we are going to get this story out is to go to a newspaper like the Times, who had already been covering the scandal.
Are you in contact with Grigory at all?
Not in direct contact, no. Attorneys check in through the FBI and DOJ, and I'll get a progress report. But I haven't been able to talk to him in the last year.