'Icarus': How an amateur cyclist stumbled into the secret world of Russian doping

Filmmaker Bryan Fogel started out making a film about his own experience.

ByABC News
August 9, 2017, 8:52 PM

— -- The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was a grand spectacle of Russian glory. The host country took home an impressive 13 gold medals, which spiked national pride in Russia and boosted President Vladimir Putin’s stature.

But after the pomp and pageantry faded, there were explosive accusations claiming Russia had cheated and that dozens of Russian Olympic athletes, including 15 of their 33 medal winners, had participated in a state-run doping program.

At the center of the firestorm was Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, one of Russia’s top anti-doping scientists, whose story is chronicled in the new Netflix documentary “Icarus.”

“There was never any anti-doping in Russia, ever,” “Icarus” filmmaker Bryan Fogel told ABC News “Nightline” co-anchor Dan Harris. “It was all just a facade.”

An amateur cyclist, Fogel said he initially set out to understand how his hero, Lance Armstrong, had managed to get clean drug tests for years despite his doping.

“If Lance had been able to do this... forget about cycling -- what did this mean for every sport on planet Earth?” Fogel said.

So Fogel decided to make himself the guinea pig and take performance enhancing drugs, or PEDs, and then try to pass anti-doping tests, filming every step of the way.

“I was very interested to see if it was still possible to evade detection, if anything had changed since Armstrong’s confession,” he said. “That was the initial journey.”

For help with his project, Fogel said he was referred to Rodchenkov, who at the time was running Russia’s anti-doping lab.

“Grigory agrees to help me … and also agrees to help smuggle my urine to his Moscow laboratory to figure out when I would be clean, when I would test negatively,” Fogel said. “That in of itself was pretty mind-boggling, that this scientist was going to help me do that because he should not have been doing that to begin with.”

Fogel said part of the reason he thinks Rodchenkov was interested in helping him was for the allure of being a part of a movie and, Fogel said, “I think the other part of that is he had just got out of the Sochi Olympics, in which Russia had pulled off the single biggest fraud in the history of sport."

But after Fogel started working with Rodchenkov, an explosive report in a German documentary about Russian state-sponsored doping, which lead in part to Independent Commission Report, found Rodchenkov was part of Russia’s doping activities.

After the report came out, Fogel said, “Putin appears on state television, and not only does he deny everything that has happened in that report, he says there was no state-sponsored doping in Russia. About 12 hours after that statement, Grigory is on a call to me and he has two … KGB agents living in his home, protecting him, and he tells me that they’re going to kill him.”

“In that moment, I knew that the movie, the story that I thought that I was setting out to make, was over,” Fogel continued. “This was beginning a whole other journey.”

Believing he had Rodchenkov’s life in his hands, Fogel said he immediately bought Rodchenkov a plane ticket to fly out of Moscow to the United States -- Rodchenkov already had a visa as a lecturing professor in the U.S. Fogel said Rodchenkov brought with him a hard drive with documents detailing Russia’s doping program.

“I realize that I’m sitting on a nuclear bomb of information,” Fogel said. “And not only am I sitting on a nuclear bomb of information that changes all of sports history, I’m sitting on the evidence as well … he [Rodchenkov] had essentially prepared to blow the lid off this.”

According to Rodchenkov, during the Sochi Games, Russian intelligence agents posed as maintenance workers who would enter the athlete testing lab, then break into tamper-proof collection bottles and swap out dirty urine from Russian athletes for clean samples.

“Because they controlled everything about those Olympic Games … they had the lock, they had the key, they ran the bank, they operated the vault, they were the judge, the jury, the executioner, the police, they could essentially facilitate whatever they wanted,” Fogel said.

This elaborate plot, Rodchenkov said, allowed Russian athletes to continue doping throughout the games, giving them an advantage over other countries.

“Everything with the Olympic Games was to demonstrate that Russia … had risen off its knees that it was a great power and that it was basically a peer competitor to big countries such as the United States,” said Russian scholar Yuval Weber, who is a global fellow for Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.

In the film, “Icarus,” Fogel recorded a stunning conversation he had with Rodchenkov about the entire scope of Russian doping.

“Does Russia have a systematic statewide doping system in place to cheat the Olympics?” Fogel asks him.

“Yes,” Rodchenkov says.

Fogel: “Were you the mastermind of a statewide system that cheated the Olympics?”

Rodchenkov: “Of course, yes.”

In the film, Rodchenkov claims of the 73 medals Russia won in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 30 were “dirty,” meaning the athlete had been doping. For the 2012 London Games, Rodchenkov tells Fogel that of the 81 medal Russia won, “50 percent” were dirty.

Fogel: “Was Putin aware of the existence of the Russian doping system?”

Rodchenkov: “Yes. Aware of my name.”

Fogel said Rodchenkov served as both the doping and anti-doping figurehead in Russia.

“He was the venom and the anti-venom,” Fogel said.

Once safely in the U.S., Rodchenkov decided to go public with his allegations and Fogel was deeply intertwined by then.

“Here I was … being handed this information, and I had a spectacular responsibility to help him bring that forward,” he said.

Fogel said Rodchenkov was tired of hiding and tired of using the science he developed for anti-doping detection for its opposite purpose.

“This was no longer science to him,” Fogel said. “This was just outright fraud, and he realized that this system was not going to last.”

Russia’s participation in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio was then in jeopardy. The president of the International Olympics Committee, or IOC, called the alleged scheme “an unimaginable level of criminality.” The World Anti-Doping Association, or WADA, backed up Rodchenkov’s claims about the Sochi doping plan in a July 2016 report.

Ultimately though, only the Russian track-and-field team was blocked from competing in Rio and Putin has continued to deny the allegations.

Rodchenkov is now in U.S. federal protective custody.

When asked if he thought Putin knew about Russian athletes doping, Yuval Weber said, “I would doubt that he that he ordered the actual doping to happen but that he made clear that he wanted the athletes to win at any cost.”

U.S. intelligence agencies say the exposure of the doping scandal was one of Russia’s motivations for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, which Fogel also believes to be possible.

“Watch this film and then tell me or tell the world that you doubt what Russia is capable of,” he said. “It's that clear and simple.”