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'Icarus': Filmmaker Bryan Fogel's accidental journey inside a Russian doping scandal

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Filmmaker Bryan Fogel in his documentary "Icarus," which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Filmmaker Bryan Fogel in his documentary "Icarus," which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

In “Icarus," a cyclist who sets out to document his experiments with performance-enhancing drugs helps uncover a massive doping scandal inside Russia.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week was a documentary by Bryan Fogel called “Icarus," a movie about a cyclist who sets out to film his experiments with performance-enhancing drugs, only to help uncover a massive doping scandal inside Russia. 

Fogel is a really good cyclist — competing at the highest levels among amateur racers. But he wanted to go even faster, so he decided to cheat and see if he could dope without failing drug tests. The idea was to film himself at every step. 

To help with his experiment, Fogel enlisted a Russian doping expert to guide him through a menu of drugs and to teach him tricks to avoid getting busted. But during Fogel’s doping, which is chronicled in “Icarus,” the wheels come off the original idea for the documentary. 

It turns out that Fogel’s Russian advisor is actually at the center of his country’s massive, state-run doping efforts. And when the adviser gets scapegoated, he ends up sharing secrets with Fogel, revealing how Russia rigged the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.  

When we met with Fogel at Sundance, he started by explaining the backdrop to his movie — as his former cycling hero, Lance Armstrong, is being unmasked as a total and complete cheater..

Interview Highlights:

On how he got involved in the film:

The story on the world wide media was that they had caught [Armstrong]. But if you scratch below the surface, they actually didn't catch him. He had passed 500 drug tests clean. To this day he was never caught for doping. So I'm looking at it, and here it is January, 2013 and I'm going, What's wrong with this system if the most tested athlete on the planet Earth has not been caught? What does that mean for the NFL? What does that mean for baseball? What does that mean for running? You know, I was thinking about all sports. I wondered what these drugs do to you [and] if I could evade detection. In this process I get connected to Grigory Rodchenkov. And Grigory at the time is running WADA lab in Moscow.

What these labs do is they're responsible for all the drug testing, anti-doping controls for athletes in the world. The agencies are usually run by the countries themselves — so in Russia it was RUSADA. They collect the urine samples, they collect the blood samples, they monitor the athletes, they bring the samples to the lab and the WADA lab tests them. Basically the buck stops at the WADA lab. Grigory had just finished testing for the Sochi Olympics. I reach out to him and get connected through a scientist and I said, I want to make this documentary exploring the anti-doping system. Grigory immediately was like, Yes, yes, this sounds interesting. Yes, I will help you.

All of the sudden it's November 9th, 2015, and I'm back from my second race in Europe and this 335-page report, this WADA investigation, breaks. It's saying that Grigory is the mastermind of Russia's state-sponsored doping program. He resigns from the lab. The other guy — the head of RUSADA, Nikita Kamayev — resigns. Russia's in a panic. Putin is on national television denying everything. Grigory is essentially going to get pushed under the bus. I made a decision literally in the course of 30 minutes. I'm on a call with him and he's like, Brian, you have to help me! I need to escape! And I buy him a plane ticket. I had no idea what was to come. And we get him out.

On when he realized the situation was out of hand:

Yes, over my head. And it was also really scary because I'm watching the news and I'm realizing that this is not low level. This is Putin on national television. The guy who's at the center of this is suddenly here in Los Angeles and I'm his protector. When Grigory arrived in L.A., he comes with three hard drives [with] thousands and thousands of documents on them. But I have no idea at that point, truly the extent of what had happened and what he had been involved in. Day after day I'm getting more and more scared.

On the mysterious deaths of other scientists:

There were basically two people outside of the Russian Ministery — the government — that knew what was going one. One is Grigory, one is Nikita Kamayev, and the other was this guy Vyacheslav Sinev, who was before Nikita Kamayev. So Nikita and Vyacheslav die within two weeks of each other at 52 and 59 of heart attacks. Grigory is the last man standing. Grigory actually had the true forensic evidence. He had the bodies and the blood and the science. I mean, this was the only man on planet Earth that could actually prove this. 

On Rodchenkov's method for tricking WADA:

It was a process that kept developing over time. For example, like [at the London games], they couldn't control the lab, but Grigory had developed this three-drug cocktail. At the same time, he had developed this test that could determine whether or not an athlete was taking steroids, and the detection window was six months. But Grigory had figured out an anti-venom that would only make the detection window two weeks. So essentially, he's created the venom and the anti-venom. He is doping and he is anti-doping at the same time. So the Russian athletes are essentially able to get through the testing. While the other athletes in the world are getting caught, the Russian athletes are showing negative because of Grigory's science. So that was London and it was this incredible other fraud. 

Then, when they get to Sochi and are in control of their own lab in their own country, they can do whatever they want. Essentially, they figure out how to break into these [tamper-proof bottles]. This is the Fort Knox. This is the vault. This is what the World Anti-Doping Agency says protects every clean athlete on planet Earth — that nobody can get into these bottles. Well, the KGB figured out how to get into the bottles undetected, and so Russia [says], [Forget] figuring out how to have our athletes avoid positive detection. [Forget] doing what Lance Armstrong did, which was figuring out when to take the drugs and when not to take the drugs. We can just have our athletes go full on doped because we can break into the bottles and dump out their dirty pee and swap it for their clean pee

On Russian government intervention and double-speak:

In Russia, there have been multiple news programs about me and Grigory and about our friendship. They hacked Grigory's emails. They hacked our correspondence. That's been over the last several months. I keep getting these links to Russian media pieces and state television pieces on Grigory and I. They interrogated his wife, his sister and his children, and they took their passports and they seized his assets. On that level, there's every reason to believe that not only are they aware, they are trying to take actions to do something about it. 

What we're finding is we're in this time of double-think, which is 1984, which is Orwell. Our leaders are telling us something, they just keep repeating a lie and they repeat the lie and they repeat the lie until it becomes truth. We're realizing that — just [as] with the White House, "alternative facts" — truth is no longer a given. Governments around the world are just going to sit there and tell you this is not true, even though you might pile them with 10,000 documents of evidence, as in the case of this, or in the case of our own election.

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