Skip to main content

Anatomy of a Scandal: 'Icarus' Shifts from Comedic Experiment to Thriller Investigation

By Akiva Gottlieb

Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel in 'Icarus.' Courtesy of Netflix.

Bryan Fogel's debut documentary, Icarus, was one of Sundance 2017's undeniable success stories, having sold distribution rights to Netflix for a whopping $5 million. The film is an incendiary, globetrotting investigation into a large-scale Russian Olympic doping scandal, driven by a compromised anti-doping official turned charismatic whistleblower named Grigory Rodchenkov. Fogel, who befriends and supports Rodchenkov over the course of the film, would be first to admit that he's an unlikely candidate to pursue this story.

A Malibu-based comedian who made his name with the long-running Off-Broadway smash (and 2012 Fogel-directed film) Jewtopia, Fogel found himself in 2013 battling depression and figuring out "how I was going to proceed creatively." A competitive amateur cyclist, he hit upon the idea of a zany, Morgan Spurlock-style first-person doc that would chronicle his experimentation with performance-enhancing drugs.

Documentary sat down with Fogel last week at Netflix headquarters to discuss how Icarus quickly went from Super Size Me to something more like Citizenfour.

We get glimpses of it in Icarus, but what was your idea for the original documentary?

Bryan Fogel: I was riding my bike a lot, because cycling for me has always been my therapy, and the conversation around that time was, Did Lance [Armstrong] dope, did he not dope? Sure enough, it comes out in January 2013 that he dopes - and I was obsessed with it.

Behind the story, though, was that this guy had passed 500 anti-doping tests clean; he'd never been caught. To this day he still hasn't been caught, and the only way that they got him is through a criminal investigation where his teammates - who did the exact same thing that he did: ratted him out in exchange for their own immunity. He beat all of them, and he beat everyone else that was doping; there's nobody else to give these tour titles to.

I'm sitting there going, OK, the guy is a jerk, he could be a sociopath, he's sued people, his tactics are horrid, but what is wrong with this anti-doping system that for 12 or 15 years they can't catch this guy? They still haven't caught him! So, I start getting obsessed with this idea of, Wait, does this system work?

I thought, Maybe there's a movie to make that says, "Wait, you didn't catch him." I decide to be a guinea pig because I was so curious myself as to what these drugs did, as an obsessive cyclist always wondering how much faster I could be. Then I started talking to all these scientists and, one after the other, they were all basically telling me, "The anti-doping system doesn't work, WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] is a fraud, nobody wants to catch anybody, this is all smoke and mirrors, you can still get away with it." I said, "Hey, you think I could do this?" They're like, "Well, sure, with the right advice." That became the idea of how I was going to do this film.

Knowing what Icarus eventually turned into, do you still think that original idea would've made for a compelling film?

I think it would've been a fun and interesting film. Here's a guy injecting all sorts of shit into his ass while he's also racing his bike 70 mph down a mountain, while he's also exploring all this hypocrisy in sport, and at the same time he's working with this crazy Russian scientist who should not be doing any of this to begin with…I wasn't quite sure where it was going to go, but I felt like it had the makings of at least a more riveting version of Super Size Me, except you're watching life and death and high-stakes sports, and this crazy Russian scientist.

It was that film that I was able to get the first piece of financing around. When I got that first chunk of money, I had Grigory [commit to helping me]. I put together a whole treatment. I was going to do the Haute Route [a multiple-day bicycle race for amateurs] one year clean. I was going to do it the next year; I had set up all these trainers, coaches and exercise physiologists and people who were going to monitor me and my VO2 max [the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use] and my performance. I'd really laid this out, and that had gotten me the first chunk to get started with the film.

How did this "crazy Russian scientist" gain your trust and then keep it?

Well, I think it's a two-way street: I gained his trust and at the same time he gained my trust. For the making of the film - because you're always forced with creative decisions - the first time we see Grigory is on that Skype call, but I had been talking to him seven, eight months at that time, and emailing him.

I actually went and met him in Oregon at a sports symposium where he was lecturing. This was July 2014, and over the two-and-a-half, three days I was there, we were just talking philosophy and we formed a friendship. I told him, "Hey, I'm thinking about doing this movie and this is what I want to do, and this what I'm looking to do, and this is my goal." He was like, "Yes, yes, you're 100 percent right: anybody can do what Lance Armstrong did. Yes, this is bullshit; WADA doesn't know what they're doing."

Day two, I told him essentially, "Hey, I want to dope myself and I want to show that this doesn't work. Would you help me?" He was like, "This is not something I should be doing, but you're an amateur; you're not a professional. Why not? Look, as long as you show me the movie before you put it out, before you're done." I said, "Yeah, of course I'll do that." And so, he agreed to help me.

The friendship had already developed, and it wasn't getting in the way of the story you were trying to tell?

Yeah, and we just liked each other. I think what you see in the film, hopefully, is a bromance, and it's this bromance that is also kind of the emotional thread that the two of us are on this journey together. So many times, it was absurd: The guy's smuggling my urine out of my kitchen back to Moscow, and this is the same guy who did all the testing for the Sochi Olympics.

It's this constant, "Oh, my God, I can't believe he's letting us film this." Yet, I think he also knew that I was never out there to harm him, that we had this friendship and we were going to go on this journey.

He's helping you in your deception.

Yeah, and he liked that I was going to stick it to the system.

In your mind, what are the large-scale ramifications of this story? What would you say to someone who thinks Icarus is a story about fairness in sports?

Ultimately the story really has nothing to do with doping and sports. It doesn't have (anything) to do with Lance Armstrong. It doesn't have to do with whether or not anti-doping works. None of that is really what this story is. This story is essentially the uncovering of the single biggest scandal in sports history. It changes all of Olympic history. It calls into question every single medal that has ever been won in all Olympic Games across all sports.

Even if you don't care about sports, it shows on a geopolitical level what a government is willing to do to assert its dominance, because just like Orwell said, sports is war without the weapons. 

Sports is power, sports is money, sports is war. And so this film is so much more than a scandal, and so much more than sports; it is what is going on in our daily news cycle every day. It is what world leaders are willing to do to corrupt the truth, to cover the truth at all costs.

Midway through Icarus, you work with The New York Times to break the story about Russian doping. How did that collaboration work?

First of all, it was really, really intense. It was a really scary time. It was incredibly complex because before we got to that point of going to The New York Times, we had seven million pitfalls that we were trying to navigate, first of which was getting [Grigory] a lawyer, and that was almost impossible.

Every law firm we went to would say that they wanted to take this case - they understood what this was - and then they'd come back and have a conflict of interest with Russia and we were back to square one, so I was trotting around the country trying to get him a lawyer. It was insane. Then it was how we were going to get the money for the lawyer. Thank God my investors formed a 501(c) (3) and the people that invested in the film just realized that they had to put up money to help us finally get this lawyer to come on board.

Then we had to figure out his immigration and how he was going to be able to stay in the country legally and extend his visa and get a firm in DC to help him with that. Then two of his friends died in February and we were dealing with the fallout of that. Then the FBI and the Department of Justice showed up and all of a sudden they were asking him questions. That was the decision ultimately to go to The New York Times. It was a decision that was made carefully, but it was made without a lot of time.

The Rio Olympics were coming up, first and foremost. We realized that if we tried to break this story as a film, we would be doing harm to all of these athletes. We would be holding onto a story for the wrong reasons. We'd be trying to be the story, rather than letting the story follow; also, we didn't have the ability as this film team with Grigory to corroborate and prove the story. If we came out with this in a film - even if we could get it out before the Rio Olympics - it would be, "This is a bunch of bullshit; how are you going to prove this?" The only way it could be proven was to get into that laboratory and have those samples tested, have a forensic team be able to examine them, and be able to have WADA launch an investigation. Nobody wanted to do that.

This was not in the best interest of the IOC; it was not in the best interest of WADA. Russia would've done anything to conceal this. I didn't believe that the United States government - what were they going to do with this? They don't have jurisdiction over the Olympics; they couldn't go retest these samples. They're not in the anti-doping world. So, there was a decision made that we had to go to a reputable new outlet to share this story.

So Grigory, myself and my film team worked for weeks and months - not knowing we were going to go to The New York Times, but knowing we had to break this - compiling the evidence. We did that all on our own; we brought in translators; we went through the files, literally. He brought with him a hard drive because we knew that The New York Times was going to be like, "Prove it." We brought with us what we called a dossier, and it was separated by section, and it was several hundred pages of, Here it is, guys. They looked at that and they went, Got it.

How long was that process of verification?

That was three days with two New York Times reporters - Rebecca Ruiz and Michael Schwirtz - and Grigory and I in Los Angeles. We walked them through it, but of course it's The New York Times; they had to corroborate it. They corroborated it and they saw the metadata behind the files. We handed them the blood, the body, the bullets, the graveyard, the cemetery, everything. Then they broke that story.

So, the New York Times exposé allowed you to take the investigation much further than it would have otherwise gone?

Of course, because nobody wanted to do it. This is the power of media, the power of news and the power of The New York Times to go global with this; most people on planet earth believe what they read in The New York Times, that this is real news, that this is true. And they had corroborated this story. They went with it. It was front page, two pages inside. The next day, front page, entire back page. Then it was picked up by every news agency in the world. It was everywhere.

WADA had to continue the investigation, because at that point you could no longer cover it up; it was there. That was a huge leap of belief from my producers, my investors, my team, that Grigory was telling the truth. I never questioned, ever, that he was telling the truth.

Akiva Gottlieb is communications manager at IDA and associate editor of Documentary magazine.