When documentary filmmaker Bryan Fogel began looking into drugs in sport, he envisaged pulling off a bold stunt to show how easy it was to cheat anti-doping tests.
Little did he know he would end up making a geopolitical thriller about Russian doping involving dirty urine, a troubling death and the biggest scandal in sporting history.
Due for release on Netflix next Friday, Fogel’s “Icarus” shows how Russia corrupted the 2012 Olympics in London and 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, told through the eyes of the man who masterminded the fraud before defecting and turning FBI informant.
It started out as a simple plan to recreate disgraced cyclist Lance
Armstrong’s blood doping regime and document exactly how easy it was to sail through the tests that ought to have caught the American.
“The theory was, if this guy has been able to do this, what has changed in the last four years since his confession and, more importantly, what does this mean for all sport?” Fogel told AFP.
He aimed to illustrate flaws in the system by using roughly the same blood-doping regime as Armstrong and getting an expert to coach him through evading detection during his post-race urine tests.
He ended up being introduced to Russian doctor Grigory Rodchenkov, who oversaw all drug testing for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Moscow’s World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) lab and, astonishingly, was only too happy to help.
Fogel spent six months being coached by the charismatic, maverick
Rodchenkov into taking a variety of substances including human growth hormone EPO, as the pair talked over Skype and met in Los Angeles and Moscow.
‘Suicide’ plot –
Then, on November 9, 2015, WADA accused Rodchenkov in a 335-page report after an 11-month investigation of being the mastermind behind Russia’s massive, state-run doping efforts.
The international furor forced President Vladimir Putin into making
emphatic denials of state involvement on national television and promising “personalized and absolute” punishment for any individuals found culpable.
Over the next five days Rodchenkov was forced to resign, had his lab shut down and had agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB) — formerly the KGB—moved into his home. Contacts told him the intelligence services were plotting his “suicide.”
Fearing for his life, Rodchenkov escaped to the United States after Fogel bought him a plane ticket.
The scientist arrived at Fogel’s home in Los Angeles with a hard drive containing documents proving that state-sponsored doping had been going on for decades, not just in track and field but across a spectrum of Russian sports.
His evidence outlined how Rodchenkov had developed cutting-edge chemistry and, in Sochi, overseen an FSB operation to swap out contaminated urine for clean samples.
Rodchenkov tells Fogel on camera that 30 of Russia’s 73 medals in Beijing 2008 were aided by doping, as well as at least half of the 81 medals won in London 2012.
In February last year, Rodchenkov’s close friend, former anti-doping agency chief Nikita Kamaev, died suddenly of what Russian authorities called a “massive heart attack,” as he was planning a book with Sunday Times journalist David Walsh on doping in sport.
Rodchenkov says his friend—the only other non-government official in the world who knew about the doping scandal—had never suffered heart problems.
“It was incredibly frightening. You realize that this changes all of Olympic history, this is a spectacular scandal. They cheated their $50 billion Olympics and won 32 medals, and defrauded the world,” Fogel said.
Getting away with it –
In May 2016 Fogel presented a spreadsheet to a meeting of leading global anti-doping officials naming every single athlete on Russia’s programme and what they were taking in London—and revealed he had the same for the 2008 Beijing Games.
“The entire system, essentially from the advent, was how do you dope and get away with it,”Fogel told AFP.
“Grigory was this genius scientist who was creating tests that were
catching athletes, and on the same hand he was developing the ‘anti-venom,’ so that Russian athletes can get away with the test he’s developed to catch other athletes.”
Russia’s track and field team was banned from the 2016 Summer Games, but the International Olympic Committee rejected WADA’s recommendation that Russian sportsmen and women across every sport be barred.
Despite evidence of widespread fraud, 291 members of the 389-strong
Russian Olympic team traveled to Rio. The country’s full squad is meanwhile set to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, the same year Russia is due to stage the soccer World Cup.
Rodchenkov, whose wife and grown-up daughter remain in Russia, is in a federal witness protection program and Fogel says he has no idea where his friend is.
Media reports have recently suggested that the scientist may become a star witness as dozens of sporting world governing bodies consider anti-doping charges against up to 1,000 alleged Russian cheats.
“There has been a lot of talk of the value of Grigory to Russia and I am so hopeful that the United States will continue to protect him,” Fogel said, reports AFP, Los Angeles.