The Doping Documentary That Will Make You Lose Faith In Sports

Credit: Courtesy Netflix

Netflix’s latest tour de force documentary, Icarus begins as something of a Super Size Me for PEDs, as filmmaker and cyclist Bryan Fogel dopes himself to prove just how easy it is to cheat in sports (spoiler alert: it doesn't really help him). But the film soon turns into a full-on exposé as Fogel reaches out to Russian doctor Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of Moscow’s anti-doping lab. Rodchenkov designs an undetectable protocol for Fogel, even flying to the U.S. at one point to smuggle back Fogel’s urine samples for testing. Soon it emerges why Rodchenkov is so savvy at the endeavor: He’s the main doctor behind Russia’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program, and one linked to Vladimir Putin and backed by the former KGB. 

As a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation heats up, Rodchenkov flees Russia to join Fogel in the States, and the two begin working with the New York Times to expose the scandal. The revelations eventually cause Russia’s entire Olympic team to be banned for a time from the 2016 Rio Olympics. Then two of Rodchenkov’s colleagues die under mysterious circumstances, and the doctor is forced to consider joining the witness protection program. So what starts as a shopworn participatory doc spins into a hair-raising Tom Clancy thriller. We caught up with Fogel to discuss the making of his bombshell documentary, available to stream online now.

Grigory eventually fled Russia, fearing for his life. What was it like for you?

It was incredibly intense. There were months and months of sleepless nights, knowing what I knew, knowing what Grigory knew, knowing that this evidence was basically in his hands alone and now in mine. We were going to the New York Times and finding him lawyers, advisors, strategists, crisis managers, and going so far outside the scope of the documentary. I mean, this was no longer filmmaking. This was global crisis management.

Did it become reassuring to have the cameras?

Yeah. That WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] meeting that happens in Los Angeles, where we get all the officials and doping experts in the room, I wasn’t filming that for the movie. I was filming it as a record, because who knows what could’ve happened in this investigation. That meeting was very, very carefully planned and then we said, Hey look, we’re going to film this. And if you’ve got a problem with that, we’re going to scream bloody murder and just go right back to the New York Times. And they all agreed. They all agreed.

What was Grigory like?

I got to know Grigory well, and I really, really liked him. It was hard for me to imagine, because he’s such this affable, lovable guy, that he was also orchestrating this spectacular fraud on the highest level. He was the guy answering to the guy answering to Putin. It was shocking to understand the size and scope of it, that his entire life’s work was doublethink, which is why we latched on to the Orwellian theme. He’s basically saying one thing, doing another. He was anti-doping and doping, he was the venom and the anti-venom. That’s kind of a mirror of Russia in general.

Did you ever doubt what he was saying?

We had been friends for almost two years before he fled Moscow, and I had been to Moscow and spent time with his family. He had been to Los Angeles, and we had spent tens of hours on the phone and Skyping and emailing. I really trusted him. And he really trusted me. And because of that, because he was so open with me throughout this entire process, I had no reason to doubt what he was saying. The biggest concern that I had was, Was his evidence going to be corrupted? Meaning, were we going to be able to get those samples out of the laboratory. Were they going to be tested properly? Would these documents and email chains be tampered with? Was this going to really come forward truthfully? And that was part of the reason why we went to The New York Times, because we didn’t trust WADA. We didn’t trust the IOC [the International Olympic Committee]. Neither one of them had it in their best interest to reveal this info, because it basically showed that WADA had no idea what they were doing. It showed that the IOC was essentially a part of this. And we didn’t have faith in the United States government, once the Department of Justice got involved. So we knew that the only way to do this was to go to a publication like The Times and allow that story to take shape.

With Grigory, when was the moment you knew something was amiss, that he wasn’t the strict anti-doping scientist he claimed to be on the surface?

Well, like when he’s smuggling my urine back to Russia from L.A. I mean, I couldn’t believe that he was doing this. The head of the third-largest WADA lab, the guy who did all the testing for the Sochi Olympics, who’s overseeing the entire Russian anti-doping program, just smuggled my urine back to Moscow in his suitcase. At that point I thought, This is going to be a great movie. It’s so comedic and absurd. He was doing everything that he shouldn’t have been doing. It doesn’t matter that I’m an amateur athlete. That’s against all law. So that was nutty right there, and that certainly helped me realize and believe anything else that he was coming forward with.

Did the other experts know Grigory was revealing his secret to you?

They had no idea that I knew Grigory. They had no idea I was doping. I was interviewing them as a documentary filmmaker exploring the anti-doping system. Once Grigory told me everything, I went back to all of these guys saying, "The film’s getting completed and I need to interview you again." And what I do then is I plant all these hypotheticals in the interview, if this had happened, if that had happened. And the reason why is that I wanted to get an honest response. The only way that I was going to get WADA and all these people to truly respond to the ramifications was with hypotheticals. Because once it had been proven as truth, then it just becomes politics, like "Oh, we’ve got this under control. This isn’t that big of a deal. Sure, there’s this, but it’s fine now." And that to me was part of the strategy to validate Grigory, to validate everything that what he was saying. And should anything happen or go wrong in this investigation, I had all of these guys on camera saying that, essentially, [the type of doping scheme Grigory oversaw] was the end of the world. That was a very, very stressful time for me.

For an elaborate doping scheme that goes all the way to the top in Russia, in many ways the Sochi scheme was fairly crude.

Grigory created a three-drug cocktail, and he figured out how to mix anabolic steroids in either Chivas for the men or vermouth for the women, and make it so the steroid detection window would be a number of days instead of weeks or months. It was just basically not absorbed into the bloodstream. It would pass right through. He's also creating the test to detect everyone taking steroids, which increases the detection window from weeks until months. But at the same time he’s created the anti-venom to his own test by developing this drug cocktail mix that will actually beat the test he’s developed. So all the other athletes in the world are getting caught and the Russians aren’t getting caught because their scientist had developed the test and told them how to get around it. Grigory loved that part of it. It was a science game. It was a game of chess. And then all of the sudden it just became a criminal fraud operation, swapping urine. So there was this complicated evasion of science, but Sochi became very simplistic. Grigory stopped being a scientist and became, in his words, a shit bagger. What he means by that is he just became a doggie bag collector, collecting and swapping urine. 

That must have been frustrating for him. Do you think that’s one reason he came forward?

It was. He wrote to the ministry — I saw the email — and he wrote that this scheme has reached its logical conclusion. The Moscow lab was literally holding in its possession 16,000 urine samples, clean urine samples, of athletes they had collected from all over the world, from international competition. And he’d created this urine database, where all 16,000 of these samples had been measured for their steroid profile, their color, their density, and whatever else, so whenever they needed to swap for a Russian athlete he could find the closet matching urine and swap it out. And they’re doing this at every competition in Russia. So all of a sudden this is not really about doping anymore. This is about, Hey, we’re just swapping piss. And he said in the email that this is going to implode on us.

In light of all of this, what’s your take on sports these days, and the Olympics?

I mean, essentially, you have to start over, because this isn’t just Sochi. This isn’t just bobsled. This is all of Olympic history from 1970 onward. And so it calls into question every single medal ever won. Because what we know now is that there has been this spectacular state-sponsored fraud going on for 40 years. What do you do then? What the Tour de France did was they stripped Armstrong of his medals, but then they never gave them to anyone else, because everyone else had done the same thing as him. And in some ways, that’s what you’re looking at if you’re actually being truthful and honest with Olympic history. 

The flip side of that to me, though, is that we’re in an illusion to ourselves if we ever believe that clean sports is possible. Now, what Russia did with Sochi was outright criminal fraud, but the other stuff — the Lance stuff, the Marion Jones stuff — or the other anti-doping is essentially just being one step ahead of the science. And the problem is that you’ve got a thousand substances on a ban list. Ninety percent of these substances haven’t even been proven to be harmful to health, haven’t even been proven to be performance enhancing, yet they’re on a ban substance list. And then you’ve got the biggest problem, which is, medical science is going to continue to advance, technology is advancing, humans are not done evolving. So how do you ever combat this problem when you’re reading about how they’ve now learned how to make the body actually naturally make more erythropoietin (EPO). You can genetically alter this at birth, just like you can genetically alter how tall you are and what color your eyes are and whether you have fast-twitch or slow-twitch muscles. This is the future. And so the idea, or this illusion, of clean sport, racing on just bread and water, it’s never been real, and it’s never going to be real.

So what do we do?

It’s a very, very complicated subject, and I don’t think there’s really any easy answer. But what I do know is that all the drugs in the world are not going to make you Lance Armstrong unless you’re Lance Armstrong. And unless you are spending tens of thousands of hours to be Simone Biles, you’re not going to be Simone Biles. There is a dedication. Just because you took some testosterone doesn’t make you the Hulk.

Knowing all that you do, do you still enjoy watching sports?

Of course, I love sports. I watched the Tour de France two days ago, the stage where Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas crashed out and it’s awesome. This is pushing the human body to its ultimate limits, and when you see a great athlete, whoever it is, it’s spectacular. It’s like this Patton Manning HGH thing last year. I’m going to myself, Who cares? He’s a professional athlete, he’s paid tens of millions of dollars a year to play football and let’s say he did take HGH. Well, okay, so we’re mad at him for taking something to help his body recover so he can go do his job better. Why? It’s just this total double standard that I have a very hard time grasping, especially having been so close to this subject matter.

But the problem is, how do you regulate this? Unless you’re literally putting every international professional athlete under a dome in Athlete City, where they are susceptible 24/7, two times a day to a blood and urine tests, and they all train in the same environment and community… I mean, how else do you police this. HGH has a detection window of like a day, less than a day. How do you actually truly police this without invading somebody’s personal privacy, without invading their lives? You have an athletes whereabouts program where you’re basically telling somebody your own location 24/7. It’s out of control. And the line between cheating and performance-enhancing is so blurry. If you buy a tent for $15,000 that simulates you living at 18,000 feet and you sleep in it every night so your body starts making natural EPO, that’s legal. But if you inject yourself with EPO, that’s cheating. There’s so many grey areas to this.

So something has to change. I don’t have any solutions. I don’t know what the answer is. But there is an unrealistic ideal that humanity is placing on its professional athletes that’s not keeping up with technology or the times.