How a Colorado man’s documentary (accidentally) blew the lid off a worldwide scandal.
Nearly every professional sport has had a doping scandal, but until recently, the most famous example was of Lance Armstrong, ratted out by his teammates after years of taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs. This is where filmmaker Bryan Fogel begins his documentary, Icarus.
“…they were essentially parading this as this huge triumph and that they had essentially “got” him but I never looked at it like that,” Fogel says. “To me, getting Lance was the equivalent of getting Al Capone on tax evasion.”
Fogel was curious, how easy is it to get away with performance-enhancing drugs? How is it that this man, one of the most tested in the world, had gotten away with doping after hundreds of tests? Could this still happen?
He started asking around, getting in touch with scientists and seeing if it was still possible. It turns out, they all said yes.
Fogel, an avid cyclist who had raced in his youth, turned himself into a guinea pig. He would compete in the Haute Route sportive in the Alps after undertaking a daily steroid program. The Haute Route is a multi-day bike race whose route takes bikers climbing up and down mountains; it’s considered one of the most difficult amateur races out there.
Icarus opens in Boulder, with a scene familiar to many Boulderites: the Flagstaff climb. Here in Boulder, where Fogel had gone to college after growing up in Denver, Fogel started his training, and his doping, with the help of Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov.
Yes, that Russian scientist.
It turns out that Fogel’s story had been inspired by the most famous doping case in the world at the time. And would be a key factor in understanding one of the only doping cases that would usurp Armstrong’s claim to infamy: the state-sponsored doping case in Russia, that led to the ban in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
It’s with Rodchenkov that the film starts to change tone. In the beginning, there’s mention of a German documentary that uncovered the doping scandal of a Russian documentary, but later a 335-page report is what makes the tide really start to turn for Rodchenkov and Russian athletes.
“Exactly how you see it in the film is exactly how it played out,” Fogel says.
In a seven day period between the scandal breaking with that report, the IAAF had suspended Russia from world track, and you could see Rodchenkov was about to be pushed under the bus. Fogel, who had been working with Rodchenkov for almost two years at that point, bought him a ticket to the U.S. to escape the backlash from Russia.
Once out of Russia, he became a whistleblower, explaining that he had fed dozens of athletes a cocktail of three different illegal performance-enhancing drugs in a scheme that had been planned by the state for years to ensure dominance at the Olympics.
Icarus captures all of this. The documentary manages to at once be a real-life thriller, with Fogel doping and Rodchenkov escaping, but it’s also a story of friendship between these two unlikely allies, and Fogel says that was very intentional.
“As a film, that just so happened to be true, shocking, and world-changing, in the crafting of it, I was thinking about how do I create the bourne identity, how do I get the audience to care about this character and how to invest the audience emotionally? Because the film could’ve easily been crafted as a piece of news or ‘here’s what happened and here’s how they did it,’” Fogel says. “And that was not my intention. I wanted to invest the audience emotionally, and in order to do that, it was developing the relationship between Grigory and me honestly, which is what I did… And in the crafting of the film, I always viewed the film narratively as a bromance. That it was a bromance first and that it was a true real-life thriller second.”
When the film premiered on Netflix, people were clamoring to know more about the Russian scandal and the Russian scientist who had helped mastermind the doping program. But thanks to Fogel’s filmmaking, people connected with the ‘bromance’ Fogel showed in the film as much as they found excitement in knowing the behind-the-scenes of one of the biggest worldwide scandals in recent years.
And then came Oscar-buzz.
“The academy process is a long and daunting one. First, the film had to qualify, then from qualification, there’s a lot of campaigning,” Fogel says. …“It was a very long, slow process. And every step of the way of it was humbling, and I was honored and also deeply optimistic that the film would be recognized. Not for myself but for what the story is and for Grigory and his longevity.”
The win, for Best Documentary Feature, was hoped for, but not expected by Fogel, “It was a combination of feeling like this tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and it was utterly euphoric. It’s very hard to explain that emotion because I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything like that in my life again.”
Nowadays Fogel is living in LA, and he doesn’t seem like he’s quite gotten tired talking about Icarus yet. And yes, he’s still biking. When we spoke, he ended our afternoon conversation by saying he was going to go on a ride.
“I think I’m gonna try to sneak out on the bike for an hour. I could use a ride.”