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The Documentarian Who Stumbled Into the Biggest Doping Scandal Ever

Three years ago, Bryan Fogel knew that he needed to reinvent himself. The co-writer and star of the long-running, massively successful 2003 rom-com play Jewtopia, the film version of which he directed almost 10 years later, Fogel was looking for a second act — to break out of being, as he calls it, “the Jewtopia guy.” Inspired by documentaries like Super Size Me and Man on Wire, he thought about his love for competitive amateur cycling and wondered if he could make a movie about the rampant doping going on in the sport — especially after Lance Armstrong finally admitted to cheating in 2013.

And so he hit upon an idea: What if he took steroids to improve his race times, but also tried to use the most sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs possible to escape detection from anti-doping labs? His hope was to expose how easy it was to cheat the system — and, in the process, give himself a new creative lease on life. “Hollywood was not going to give me [an] opportunity,” he explains, “and so I went back to the ABCs: Do what you know, write what you know, don’t wait for other people to help you, just do it.”

The documentary he planned to make — a Super Size Me-style examination of doping — was a clever idea, but fate had grander designs for his project. As part of Fogel’s research, he found his way to Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, who was the director of that country’s anti-doping program. Rodchenkov volunteered to assist Fogel with his attempts at subterfuge, ostensibly to build awareness for the widespread corruption going on in sports. But along the way, Fogel discovered that his new friend was hiding a secret: He was, in fact, also supervising a state-run doping initiative that helped Russian athletes win multiple medals at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Icarus (which is now streaming on Netflix) is the result of that unplanned narrative twist—both revealing how Fogel’s initial idea got hijacked by Rodchenkov’s revelations and charting the filmmaker’s efforts to keep the scientist safe once he became afraid for his life in his home country.

I recently spoke with Fogel about the personal crossroads he was facing when he first hatched this project. But I was also curious about the issues that got sidetracked because of Rodchenkov’s incredible tale — what it’s like to take steroids, why we should stop romanticizing the notion of the “clean” athlete, and whether he ever feared for his life in the midst of making the film.

Most people knew you from Jewtopia. With Icarus, were you intentionally trying to do something as completely different as possible?
If I’m being frank, I got trapped in Jewtopia. It was an amazing experience, but the show ran in L.A. and New York for four and a half years. It was a traveling production. There was a book. I held on to do the movie. And then I came out of that movie essentially as purely the Jewtopia guy. So it was a blessing and a curse.

I went through a bit of depression as that movie ended — I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. Cycling has always been my passion in life, and I just went back to that as my therapy [while] batting around creative ideas. When the whole [Lance] Armstrong thing broke — the fact that this guy had never failed a drug test, and tested negative 500 times — it gave me this idea to set out on this journey.

Icarus ended up not being about the ethics of PEDs because of the larger story you discovered. But how do you feel about them? If they’re so rampant in sports, maybe we’ve reached a point where we should just allow them in — rather than obsessively testing athletes, who keep finding new ways to trick the system anyway.
It’s a complicated question. We have this notion in society of the purity of clean sports. We also have this notion of a level playing field. [There’s this idea that] if you’re going to compete — especially at the highest levels, where hundredths of a second matter — we should all be competing based on our own physical abilities or our training and not taking substances to enhance that performance.

In theory, I agree with that — nobody wants to be cheated, especially in the world of sport, where there’s this idea of sportsmanship. But where it gets muddy is in the science and technology. There’s going to forever be an ongoing cat-and-mouse game [between athletes and anti-doping labs]. What we’re seeing, over and over again, is that just because an athlete says they’re clean, [it] doesn’t mean they’re clean. And just because they test clean, [it] doesn’t mean they’re clean. Science is now unable to keep up with the medical technology.

Plus, part of that medical technology has to do with the evolution of human beings. Performance enhancement is the same thing as extending the human lifespan from 77 years old to what you read now in all these journals and publications that believe humans are going to live past 100 within our lifetime. This is part of the ongoing philosophical question, which is that curing Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease and finding out why you go bald or go gray is all wrapped up into the world of performance enhancement.

We have to come to grips with this as a society. We’re evolving, and as long as there’s medical technology in science that’s allowing human beings to live better, healthier and longer lives, we have to reassess the definition of a “clean” athlete. There are many articles recently about how genetic-engineering humans of the future is a reality now. If I have half a million dollars, I can see to it that my kid comes out being 6-foot-3; I can see to it that he has blue eyes instead of brown; I can see to it that he’s blond; I can see to it that he won’t develop Alzheimer’s or prostate cancer; I can see to it that he won’t go bald.

That’s why I think the athlete of the future — whether we like it or not — is going to be some sort of enhanced genetic version of our current humanity. So how do we deal with that in the world of “clean” sports? I don’t have the answer to that question. But I do think that the anti-doping system, as it is set up, doesn’t have an easy solution, and that there never will be an easy solution.

Grigory Rodchenkov is such a larger-than-life character. But almost from the start, there seems to be something fishy about him. When did you first suspect he was concealing things from you?
First of all, I always believed the guy because he never lied to me. There was never a moment in my two and a half years of working with Grigory that I said, “He’s a liar.” And I had no reason to ever doubt him, because this guy was actually helping prove to me that he could get around testing and that he was an expert. So I never once doubted him as to his credibility or his truthfulness.

Image via Netflix

But my process of understanding how deeply involved he was — what he had been up to and the extent of this corruption — really unfurls as it does in the film. I believed that there must be some merit to this 2014 German television documentary [which is featured in Icarus and first exposed the Russian doping cover-up], but I didn’t get into probing Grigory as an investigative journalist because he was helping me on my own investigation. But once he gets to L.A., I begin to learn the full extent of the Russian conspiracy of what he had been involved in — ultimately, the biggest scandal in Olympic or sporting history.

Was there a point where you thought, “Hey, I didn’t sign up for something this serious?” Did you ever not feel up to the task of a Citizenfour-style journalistic/investigative documentary?
It was a day by day, week by week, month by month process. But I’m somebody who, when I set out to do something, I follow through. Originally, I’d set out to make this [one kind of] movie, I’d accepted investors’ money to make this film, and then the film ends up pivoting. It pivots in, obviously, a very scary direction, but also in a direction that’s a million times bigger and more relevant and more important than I could’ve imagined. So I never felt like I was going to walk away from it.

But the difficulty with this constant daily ball of nerves was how to navigate it. It turned into a seven-month process: There were people involved in the [Russian] operation mysteriously dying; the FBI and Department of Justice showed up; [there were] months of trying to get Grigory a lawyer, but every law firm we went to had a conflict with Russia. We tried to get him immigration help while he was facing a subpoena to appear in front of the U.S. district attorney in a Department of Justice investigation. It wasn’t until Grigory goes into protective custody in July of 2016 that we were able to spend the next year crafting the film. Before then, it was truly about, “Okay, we’re just in a daily crisis, and our cameras are there.”

Grigory fears for his safety in Icarus. Did you think your life was in danger?
I was worried on many levels. I was worried for my own safety when I understood how spectacular the evidence was, the implications and how it essentially upended Olympic history. That certainly gave me reason to pause.

Image via Netflix

And then once we broke the story to The New York Times… To see Russia’s response [to that story] — where there were hundreds of stories and news pieces calling Grigory a fraud, [accusing] me of working with the Americans or me doing this for money — it was every single piece of slander you could imagine, including hacking Grigory’s email, hacking into Grigory’s sister’s Skype sessions, where they were recording the private conversations between them, [hacking] photos that I had sent Grigory privately. It was very, very intense. I personally haven’t felt like my life was in danger, but Grigory had every reason to believe that he wouldn’t be alive to tell this story had he stayed in Russia.

When was the last time you communicated with Grigory? How is he doing?
The last time I actually spoke to Grigory was when he went into protective custody in July of 2016. But I’ve been able to stay in contact through his legal counsel and through the Department of Justice and FBI to get updates on his emotional state. They tell me he’s okay. And we did facilitate through his legal counsel and the FBI to show him the film, to which I heard he was moved by it. I’m very grateful for that.

You mentioned why making Icarus was stressful, even frightening. But, at the same time, there must have been an element of excitement. You landed this major exposé — that’s a huge get.
I mean, on a filmmaker and journalist level, yes, absolutely. But as you see in the film, we make a decision to go to The New York Times rather than to hold on to this story ourselves. That decision was made out of realizing that we didn’t have the ability to corroborate this [information] as it needed to be corroborated. We couldn’t go and retest those Olympic samples; we couldn’t go and do the investigation that was needed. So I had to let go of that to allow the correct process to begin to validate Grigory’s allegations and evidence.

To me, that was more important than the film. Similarly, it was more important that Grigory be protected, and we believed that once we went public, he became safer. I obviously knew what we had, but ultimately, I felt it was my responsibility to bring forward this story to the world and not hold onto it for my own purposes.

Since the film premiered at Sundance, Russia has dominated the headlines. Do you feel like you’re still stuck in the middle of this movie — that you never really got free of it?
I couldn’t have imagined that Russia was going to take over our news cycle. I had no idea as we were exposing this — and even as the film was being assembled — that the current administration would come into office. All of that turned out to be the aftermath, if you will, of what was already a shocking story into a massive corruption perpetrated by the Russian state.

But I think what the film provides now, in its current context, is a window into the clandestine operations of the Russian state and how those efforts were orchestrated to great detail at the highest level. If Russia is willing to do this to win gold medals — to corrupt international sports — where else are they willing to go to assert themselves as a world power? I think that that’s where this film has a lot of relevance in today’s media cycle for anyone who might be questioning Russia’s ability to involve itself in world politics — and, in so doing, corrupting that process.

One last question about your original idea. This whole movie started from your interest in taking PEDs and seeing if you could beat the anti-doping tests. So, how did you feel on steroids? Do you miss them?
Well, it opens up a whole other discussion — which is that the vast majority of things that we consider in society as doping and harmful to you, to a large extent, are the same things that are being marketed as anti-aging. If you’re a professional athlete, these are banned substances. If you are a 45-year-old man, this is a fountain of youth that increases your libido and allows you to live a better life. So there’s this interesting confluence in that regard.

As far as my personal experience, I found that I didn’t have any harmful side effects — I didn’t have any comedown from the drugs or anything like that. I found that I was recovering [faster], that I was sleeping better and that I was more alert. Overall then, I’d say it’s an individual choice — if you’re not in professional sports. [laughs] If you’re in professional sports, there are rules, and the rules say that you can’t take this stuff.