New Netflix Film ‘Icarus’ Exposes Russia’s Olympic Doping Conspiracy
"I was sitting on a nuclear bomb of information"
The original concept behind director Bryan Fogel’s film that would become Icarus was an outlandish bit of participatory documentary making. Fogel, an amateur cyclist, decided he would engage in a doping regime before racing in the grueling Haute Route competition in order to explore how the drugs affected his performance and how easy it was to defeat the testing systems. To guide his use of banned substances, he enlisted the help of Grigory Rodchenkov, the mustachioed Russian scientist who ran Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre.
But in the middle of making it, the focus of Icarus changed dramatically. Rodchenkov became its focal point after he escaped his country and told both the New York Times and the U.S. Justice Department about the wide-ranging doping conspiracy the Russian government put in place to aid and protect its athletes, eventually resulting in the country winning the most medals at 2014’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Ahead of the film’s debut on Netflix today, Fogel spoke about the implications of doping in sports, and whether he thinks anyone is still bothered by it.
The movie that you set out to make was very different than the one you ended up releasing. Was there a specific moment when you realized you had to tell a different story or was it a gradual shift?
It was gradual from basically December 2014 to November 2015. I knew that there was this WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] investigation that was looking into the claims from the German television documentary. And I knew that they were looking into Grigory then, and as you see in the film, I asked him about it many, many times. Even when he was going back [to Russia] after visiting in Los Angeles, he was saying, “If I survive, we’ll see.”
During that period of time, which I don’t outline in the film, I was interviewing Richard Pound [the first president of WADA], I was interviewing Richard McLaren [a member of a WADA commission that investigated Russia], I was interviewing people at WADA. I was going after all these other key figures—most of their interviews don’t make it into the film—asking them, “What is at stake in the Russia investigation? What do you think you’ll find?” So I was certainly cognizant that there was that hook out there.
I clearly couldn’t have known how big it was, how deep Grigory was involved, and where the allegations ran to. There was kind of this year of going, “Hey, there might be a bigger story here, but I’m not going to put all my eggs in that basket. I’m still making this other film,” which is what I’d gotten the financing around.
But certainly in November 2015, there was that whole Skype sequence in which [Grigory Rodchenkov] basically says, “I need to escape,” and arrives in Los Angeles. Within about a week of him getting to Los Angeles and starting to understand what this was and that I was sitting on a nuclear bomb of information, it was clear to me that the film that I thought I was making was not the film that was ultimately going to be the one that went forward.
In July of 2016, we were able as the creative team to just kind of go, “This doesn’t matter… This doesn’t matter… This doesn’t matter.” In that process, I literally threw away two years of footage to make room for ultimately what this story was.
Was there ever a moment when you were like, “I’m not sure I want to step into this,” or get as involved as you ultimately became?
It was such an onslaught and it was a daily crisis management, but at the same time, I’d spent two years already working with this guy. And there was a real friendship there.
I had already traveled all over the world, shooting, and then the story takes this crazy turn. It’s incredibly stressful and it’s really scary, but I also looked at it in a way that this person’s life was in my hands. It was truly, truly high stakes. I mean, I questioned it, I was worried about it a lot of the time, but I never got to a place where I was literally like, “I’m backing out.”
I was surprised by how cavalier Rodchenkov seemed at the beginning of the film when he’s just helping you with the doping.
It was very surprising to me, because he should have never been doing this to begin with. I had this constant scratching of my head in disbelief that he was helping me, but at the same time, I had told him many, many times, and I meant it, “Look, when we’re done making the movie, I’ll come to Moscow or you’ll come L.A., we’ll sit down, you’ll see what I’ve put together, and if there’s going to be a problem for you, we’ll discuss it and we’ll work through this and figure it out. And rest assured that I’m not going to have anything in this film, at the end of the day, that you feel is going to jeopardize you.” We had that mutual understanding between us, and I think that allowed him to be set free in that there was a friendship there and he trusted me.
Here’s my kind of cynical question: At this stage, do you think that spectators or fans care if the athletes are doping?
Within each sports fan, we all go in the back of our mind, “I hope they play clean, I hope these guys aren’t doping.” But on the other hand, I think most sports fans truly admire the spectacular-ness of the athletic accomplishments. So hypothetically, some NBA player is taking testosterone. Would that ultimately lessen the spectacular-ness of what an amazing basketball player he is? I think that we’ve kind of grown accustomed in the post-Armstrong era to take things with a grain of salt. And with that defense, I don’t think anything is shocking or surprising, I think it’s just more disappointing. Ultimately I think fans, the public, loves sport for what it is, which is it brings communities together. It gives people something to cheer about and feel connected to.
Sometimes I feel like people only care about this stuff if it means their team lost. Patriots fans say, “Maybe Tom Brady used deflated footballs, but who cares? It’s not a big deal.” And people who hate the Patriots say, “They only won because they cheated and used deflated footballs.” It seems like people have many ways to rationalize or explain away the actions of their team or their preferred athletes if they do questionable things.
Right. Which is very strange, because I think the byproduct of that is this notion of cheating or not cheating. Do we as a society truly believe that the Patriots won because the football was deflated? I mean, that’s preposterous. They won because it’s Tom Brady and these guys are unbelievable.
Even in the case of Lance Armstrong, for example, you have this guy and you’ve stripped him of his seven [Tour de France] titles, but they haven’t given them to anyone else. Every single cyclist of his generation did the same thing as he did. So the question is, does that lessen his accomplishment if everybody else was doing the same thing and he beat everybody else?
There are so many gray areas in this. In a perfect world there would be this purity in sport, but we’re in an era of medical technology and science, and human evolution. Every single day we are developing ways for humans to live longer, to live better lives. Part of that living longer and living better lives also is figuring out how to be better humans, and being a better human also involves curing diseases and how you’re going to function better. That’s all in and of itself performance enhancing. I think it’s more of a philosophical question, as to what we’re going to accept in sport and from our athletes when science and technology and medicine are just continuing to advance and advance and advance.
We have to ask ourselves, Is it possible to have this idea of, whatever we call it, clean sport, when there are so many definitions as to what is clean? Sport and overall international competition haven’t been able to quite decide yet, because it’s changing. Every day they’re putting another substance on the [banned] list, and the methodology of fighting is just to keep adding. But nobody ever takes a step back and goes, “Hey, what is the future, and how do we address the future?” Because the future is people modifying their genetics, which is already happening.
How widespread through all of competitive athletics do you think doping is?
What we’re seeing time and time and time and time again, is that just because an athlete says he’s clean, and just because he tests clean, doesn’t mean that he’s clean. They’re going back to the London [Olypmic] games, and the Mail in the UK had this huge story and they’re calling the London games the dirtiest Olympics in the history of the Olympics. But according to Grigory, Beijing is every bit as dirty as London.
I don’t know where it ends and where it begins, as long as there are billions of dollars on the line. Then, as we see in the Russia story, a country is going in to assert its dominance or show its power over another country. You can see why, for Jamaica, or Ethiopia, or Spain, or all these other countries that have been embroiled in scandals, why they would do that. Because it’s geopolitics. It’s showing yourself as the power.
But I think the Russian situation in Sochi is really, really different than the overall situation of whether or not an athlete is doping or not, or whether or not there can be clean sport, because the Sochi situation really had nothing to do with doping or anti-doping. It’s very different when you’re breaking into a bottle and dumping out dirty urine and swapping in clean urine. That has nothing to do with science or doping control, that’s just fraud. To me, there’s a huge difference there.