How a Documentary About Russian Doping Became a Rescue Mission


Russian doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov with “Icarus” director Bryan Fogel and a whole lot of hot pee
Russian doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov with “Icarus” director Bryan Fogel and a whole lot of hot pee

On November 9, 2015, Bryan Fogel stopped production on his movie. Then he started to make a completely different one.

Fogel, whose film Icarus premieres August 4, had been making a documentary he likens to Super Size Me, but for sports doping. A dedicated amateur cyclist, Fogel admired Lance Armstrong until it became clear that he had used banned substances to assist in his seven Tour de France titles, something to which Armstrong eventually confessed. But Fogel couldn’t get one thing out of his mind: Armstrong, to this day, has still never failed a drug test. How could this be? Fogel’s goal was to replicate Armstrong’s doping regimen, subject his own urine to the tests conducted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and prove that the system can still be beaten. Guiding Fogel with step-by-step instructions was a man named Grigory Rodchenkov, then the director of the WADA-accredited, Moscow-based Anti-Doping Centre.

Fogel thought he had a pretty neat documentary in the works: the director of a respected anti-doping laboratory who has monitored many high-profile sporting events, such as the Sochi and London Olympics, helping him evade the very tests he’s supposed to be conducting. Surely, this would be an explosive revelation while simultaneously demonstrating just how ineffective doping tests remain.

As Fogel continued to dope, he became friends with his frequent Skype partner. He and Rodchenkov talked about their dogs, their families, and shared their lives with each another.

But all that changed when a WADA commission, led by former president Dick Pound and law professor Richard McLaren, released its first report on November 9, 2015, investigating claims made in a German television documentary about widespread doping in Russian sport. The report found a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” within high-level Russian athletics. Fogel recognized a familiar name central to the report’s findings: Rodchenkov, who was called “an aider and abettor of the doping activities.” Rodchenkov was specifically mentioned one hundred times.

The report sent a shock wave through the sporting world, but Fogel was living a very different drama.

“I’m going, ‘OK, how serious is this?’ At first, he’s like, ‘Oh don’t worry, don’t worry,’’’ Fogel tells the Voice, mimicking Rodchenkov’s Russian accent. “And the next day it’s, ‘I’ve resigned,’ and the next day, ‘There’s two FSB agents living in my house.’”

The day after that, then-sports minister Vitaly Mutko went on state television to deny everything in the WADA report. There was no Russian doping conspiracy, he insisted. Everything was a lie.

However, President Vladimir Putin did say that Russia would conduct its own investigation and, “if we come to the conclusion that someone should answer for something that violates the existing rules in the anti-doping sphere, responsibility should be personified.”

Fogel recalls, “That was basically saying Grigory was dead.”

As Fogel retells it, Rodchenkov’s FSB contacts told him that the agency was “planning his suicide.” Rodchenkov relayed this to Fogel and made clear he needed to escape. Fogel bought him a plane ticket to Los Angeles, where the filmmaker lives, and somehow Rodchenkov was able to slip away, leaving his wife, adult children, and dog behind.

When he arrived in L.A., the first thing Rodchenkov did was hand Fogel a green hard drive. “Put this in a safe place,” Rodchenkov told him.

“What is this?” Fogel remembers asking him.

“’You don’t need to know right now, just put this in a safe place.”

Over the next six weeks, Fogel remembers, Rodchenkov wrestled with his circumstances. It was obvious that his former superiors were preparing to make him the fall guy. But, at first, Rodchenkov harbored more animosity toward WADA and held out hope that his name would be cleared.

Indeed, Icarus shows not just who Rodchenkov is, but the truths he wrestled with during those six weeks, and the ones hidden in that green hard drive. He had to come to terms with the system he was born into, one in which his mother injected him with steroids when he was a teenager and all his friends were doing the same.

“In Russia, it extends far beyond sports,” Fogel explains. “You have a country that came out of Communism, where everybody was trying to find out how they could get an edge, how they could get another piece of bread, how they could somehow better their lives and get a pair of Levi’s when they shouldn’t be wearing Levi’s. This has been the mentality of an entire country to survive throughout these years. And Grigory came into that system. So it’s very easy from our Western perspective to say, ‘Oh, bad Russia, evil mastermind.’ But when you go inside the mechanics of how people are ethically raised, it becomes a much murkier question.”

During those early weeks in America, Rodchenkov transitioned from being vindictive against WADA to realizing his former bosses in Russia would turn him into the fall guy. He began to understand the system for what it was.

So, Rodchenkov decided to tell the truth.

The movie Fogel ultimately produced is not only about a massive fraud that calls into question the legitimacy of every major sporting event in recent memory. It’s also about the toll it takes to be trapped inside that system. “Having gotten to know Grigory over what is now a four-year period, I know a person who is loving, kind, funny, gregarious, [and] who is a genius savant scientist,” Fogel says. “I also know a person who was born into a system where, for his entire life, this was just how it was done.”

Icarus opens at the IFC Center and is available on Netflix on August 4.