Ever since Michael Moore turned the camera on himself in Roger & Me and Morgan Spurlock embarked on his McDonalds experiment in Super Size Me the door has been kicked open for what can be considered acceptable in the documentary format. You don’t just have to point the camera at people and listen to them talk or watch as they go about their lives. You can make yourself a part of the story, should the story warrant the intrusion, which is exactly what filmmaker and cycling enthusiast Bryan Fogel intended to do.
In his new documentary, Icarus, which just premiered at Sundance, Fogel set out to see far he could make it as a cyclist on performance-enhancing drugs without being caught by one of the agencies responsible for testing athletes. It was just supposed to be a real-world experiment in which he acted as the test subject, filming his progress every step of the way. Fogel more or less turned himself into an undercover reporter tasked with looking into just how easy it is for athletes to cheat the system, not just in cycling but across all manner of sport, and what exactly testing agencies can do to make it harder.
Considering the way doping scandals continue to taint the Olympics and other sporting events, this all sounds like a perfectly timely documentary. However, it’s not called Icarus for no reason. The title presumably refers to the Greek myth about a boy flying too close to the sun. Fogel is that boy, Russia is the sun and the documentary he thought he was making turned into something very different.
Fogel inadvertently wandered into the middle of an international incident [more on that below], and now finds himself a practical enemy of the Russian government and semi-regular subject of Russian TV newscasts. He just wanted to know exactly how Lance Armstrong kept beating all those drug tests despite being on performance-enhancing drugs; instead, he became an enemy of Vladimir Putin and friend/savior to a disgraced Russian scientist who was originally just Fogel’s anti-doping expert but turned out to be far more well-connected and important than he could have possibly imagined.
Netflix scooped up Icarus at Sundance (for a record $5 million) and plans to premiere it sometime later this year. As a taste of what to expect, here are excerpts from an interview Fogel conducted with KPCC’s The Frame:
The story on the world wide media was that they had caught [Armstrong]. But if you scratch below the surface, they actually didn’t catch him. He had passed 500 drug tests clean. To this day he was never caught for doping. So I’m looking at it, and here it is January, 2013 and I’m going, What’s wrong with this system if the most tested athlete on the planet Earth has not been caught? What does that mean for the NFL? What does that mean for baseball? What does that mean for running? You know, I was thinking about all sports. I wondered what these drugs do to you [and] if I could evade detection. In this process I get connected to Grigory Rodchenkov. And Grigory at the time is running WADA lab in Moscow.
What these labs do is they’re responsible for all the drug testing, anti-doping controls for athletes in the world. The agencies are usually run by the countries themselves — so in Russia it was RUSADA. They collect the urine samples, they collect the blood samples, they monitor the athletes, they bring the samples to the lab and the WADA lab tests them. Basically the buck stops at the WADA lab. Grigory had just finished testing for the Sochi Olympics. I reach out to him and get connected through a scientist and I said, I want to make this documentary exploring the anti-doping system. Grigory immediately was like, Yes, yes, this sounds interesting. Yes, I will help you.
All of the sudden it’s November 9th, 2015, and I’m back from my second race in Europe and this 335-page report, this WADA investigation, breaks. It’s saying that Grigory is the mastermind of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. He resigns from the lab. The other guy — the head of RUSADA, Nikita Kamayev — resigns. Russia’s in a panic. Putin is on national television denying everything. Grigory is essentially going to get pushed under the bus. I made a decision literally in the course of 30 minutes. I’m on a call with him and he’s like, Brian, you have to help me! I need to escape! And I buy him a plane ticket. I had no idea what was to come. And we get him out.
It gets worse.
When Grigory arrived in L.A., he comes with three hard drives [with] thousands and thousands of documents on them. But I have no idea at that point, truly the extent of what had happened and what he had been involved in. Day after day I’m getting more and more scared.
There were basically two people outside of the Russian Ministery — the government — that knew what was going one. One is Grigory, one is Nikita Kamayev, and the other was this guy Vyacheslav Sinev, who was before Nikita Kamayev. So Nikita and Vyacheslav die within two weeks of each other at 52 and 59 of heart attacks. Grigory is the last man standing. Grigory actually had the true forensic evidence. He had the bodies and the blood and the science. I mean, this was the only man on planet Earth that could actually prove this.
Still, with Grigory’s help Fogel was able to blow the lid off of Russia’s doping practices, and has thousands of documents as proof. However, Russia is in full-on denial and discredit mode, and are likely ramping up to do something about the existence of Icarus (whatever that might be, though, remains unclear):
In Russia, there have been multiple news programs about me and Grigory and about our friendship. They hacked Grigory’s emails. They hacked our correspondence. That’s been over the last several months. I keep getting these links to Russian media pieces and state television pieces on Grigory and I. They interrogated his wife, his sister and his children, and they took their passports and they seized his assets. On that level, there’s every reason to believe that not only are they aware, they are trying to take actions to do something about it.
Source: The Frame