"Truth is a banned substance" - the director of Netflix’s Icarus on uncovering the greatest doping scandal in sport
How director and amateur cyclist Brian Fogel stumbled across the whistleblower who would shine a damning light on Russia's athletics programme
In January 2013, Lance Armstrong went on the Oprah Winfrey Show and admitted to conducting what the US anti-doping authority had called "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme sport has ever seen".
Despite years of allegations and vehement denial, Armstrong's goose was cooked a few months previously, when an investigation found that he had doped – and bullied his teammates on the US Postal Service team into doping – throughout all seven of his Tour de France triumphs.
Among the many cycling fans watching that day was amateur rider and filmmaker Bryan Fogel, director of Netflix’s new sports doping documentary, Icarus.
While many saw Armstrong’s behaviour as the last straw – professional cycling has a dark history of doping that extends long before Armstrong’s time – Fogel was surprisingly stoic about it.
“It certainly hasn’t lessened my love for the sport,” he says.
“They’ve taken his seven victories, but there’s no one else to give them to. So, in light of that generation and what we now know, it certainly feels like he won seven Tour de Frances.”
There's a reason for why Fogel is so sanguine about Armstrong's betrayal: the filmmaker has just played a hand in uncovering a Russian doping scandal of such magnitude that it makes Armstrong look like a drop in an ocean of deceit and conspiracy.
Fascinated by the Armstrong story, Fogel set out to discover how he had managed to pull the wool over the eyes of Wada (World Anti-Doping Agency) officials for so many years.
With the help of a Russian scientist called Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of a Wada-approved lab in Moscow, he undertook a doping programme in the months leading up to Haute Route Alps, the amateur cycling equivalent of the Tour de France.
“What I was taking was a combination, or a 'cocktail', of hormones that we produce naturally, except, basically optimising all those levels, which allowed my body to recover faster,” he says of his doping regime.
“As far as negative side effects, I really didn't experience anything,” he adds.
His programme was implemented under the watchful eye of Rodchenkov until November 2015. That month, everything changed.
A damning 323-page Wada report, commissioned in the wake of a whistleblowing German TV documentary the year before, accused the Russian doctor of co-ordinating a massive government-sponsored doping programme at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Just like that, Fogel's relationship with Rodchenkov was compromised. The Russian's lab was shut down – and two of his former colleagues died 'unexpectedly'. Fogel was thrust into a difficult position: to distance himself from Rodchenkov, or follow him down the rabbit hole and see where the story would lead.
Fogel stayed with Rodchenkov, eventually helping him leave Russia for the United States. Icarus is the result.
The documentary's findings, though public domain since 2016 – Fogel aided Rodchenkov in getting his story to the New York Times – are shocking, placing global anti-doping efforts under scrutiny and pointing a finger at a government-led doping conspiracy in Russia.
It was the filmmaker’s bond with Rodchenkov, Fogel says, that encouraged him to see the story through, despite the entire process suddenly becoming “incredibly high stress”.
“I had been with his family, he had been in my home. We were kind of like brothers at that point, so when I suddenly realised that this was more serious than I imagined – this guy is basically Snowden – I liken it to protecting my friend mode, outside of filmmaker mode,” Fogel says.
Grigory Rodchenkov & Bryan Fogel
Rodchenkov’s own motivation for getting his truth out into the world is less clear.
“His game – and he viewed this, right or wrong, as what everybody else was doing – was, 'How do you Lance Armstrong it? How do you get around the tests?'” Fogel suggests. “That was his entire life. It was this cat and mouse game that I think he really enjoyed.”
That 'game' changed with Sochi, when the process went from evading detection to actively switching out doped-up urine samples with clean ones through a hole in the wall of the laboratory.
“He went from being a scientist to being their 's*** bag', and what he means by that is, it’s no longer about the science,” Fogel says. ”It’s simply about breaking into bottles, dumping out dirty urine and putting in clean urine. This is no longer a genius science operation; this is just criminal fraud.”
As Fogel tells it, Rodchenkov saw the operation spiralling out of control, as his superiors – allegedly a direct line leading to Vladimir Putin through deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko, the former minister for sport – planned similar operations for future competitions, including the Paralympics and the upcoming Fifa World Cup, set to kick off in Moscow next summer.
“He had reached his limit. I think that he had reached a place in his mind that he was ready to come forward with this story when that investigation broke in November of 2015,” Fogel says. “He had this bomb of information; he was at the centre of this. Above him is Russian [deputy sports minister Yury] Nagornykh, and above Nagornykh is Mutko, and Mutko is Putin's best friend.”
The Russian government sees it another way. Ever since Rodchenkov shared his story with the international press, the Kremlin has claimed that he had coerced otherwise innocent athletes into taking banned substances.
In the film, Rodchenkov is the source of much intrigue. Fogel’s affection for him is clear, and at times can take the spotlight off the major hand he played in a mass cheating operation which has thrown the Olympic Games into disrepute.
The Russian is charismatic and warm, with a flair for the dramatic; he clearly enjoys telling his story. A recurring reference point throughout the film is George Orwell’s 1984, which Rodchenkov quotes on several occasions. He draws a parallel between his situation and that of the book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, a man caught in a world of omnipresent government surveillance and public manipulation.
“This is a lovable, warm, caring, compassionate person, but he has also been involved in this scandal; he's done some pretty shocking stuff that he shouldn't have been doing,” Fogel says. “Throughout all of our years of filming, he was always quoting 1984, and this idea of Doublethink [the concept, posed in the novel, of maintaining two opposing views at the same time].
“That really was the mirror of this story in its phases, but also the life that Grigory lead - he was doping and anti-doping. And, with regards to the bigger spectrum, it’s everything that we're seeing in the news, which is that the truth is basically a banned substance – the truth doesn't matter.”
Icarus is available on Netflix from Friday 4th August