When the team behind “Icarus” first set out to investigate illegal doping in cycling, they couldn’t have known their work on the Oscar-nominated documentary would spark an international incident with Russia, one with seismic, still-unfolding repercussions.
In fact, when filmmaker Bryan Fogel first approached Impact Partners, a social-justice documentary funder based out of New York, with the concept for “Icarus” (now streaming on Netflix), his pitch skewed more personal than political. It was 2013, and Fogel — an amateur cyclist — had just watched along with the rest of the world as Lance Armstrong, a personal idol of his, fell from grace after confessing to using performance-enhancing drugs. What Fogel had to say about this made Boston-affiliated producers Dan Cogan, David Fialkow, and Jim Swartz lean across the table.
“He noticed something about the Armstrong story that, somehow, nobody else in the world had noticed,” recalls Cogan, 49, a Harvard graduate who cofounded Impact in 2007 alongside Swartz, who shares his alma mater and sometimes lives locally, with houses in Boston and Martha’s Vineyard.
“Everyone pretended it was problem solved,” says Cogan. “But how can this be problem solved if this guy had taken hundreds of tests and admitted to doping for a decade or more, yet never failed one?”
Fogel’s hypothesis, Cogan and Fialkow explain by phone, was that the doping systems relied upon to monitor internationally ranked athletes could be manipulated, allowing potentially scores of drugged-up athletes to slip through the cracks undetected. And he thought he could prove it.
“[Fogel] had this gonzo idea to dope himself and go through the testing program” without failing, says Cogan. “In doing so, [he’d] show that, if some random guy off the street could do this, any professional athlete could, and there was something deeply wrong with the system.”
The producers saw the project as an intriguing experiment, an exercise in cinematic muckraking that would take audiences inside a high-stakes testing process. And Fogel, though a first-time documentary filmmaker, had enough of a daredevil streak to convincingly cast himself as a Morgan Spurlock on two wheels. Fialkow — a managing director at Cambridge venture capital firm General Catalyst who also serves as a chairman for the Pan-Mass Challenge, an annual bike-a-thon that raises money for cancer research— was particularly excited to bankroll a movie that involved competitive cycling.
“There weren’t a lot of people who thought this was going to be the most interesting idea, but we decided to do it,” says Fialkow, 59.
And so Impact partnered up with the director, plotting to use him as a human guinea pig and eventually expose a broken system. Seeking an expert to help him monitor his steroid use, Fogel connected with a Russian scientist named Grigory Rodchenkov — at the time the head of the third-largest anti-doping laboratory in the world — whom he’d met at a 2014 symposium.
Fogel’s conversations with the somewhat eccentric scientist, which blossomed into a friendship, would dramatically alter the trajectory of “Icarus,” as well as the lives of all involved. Rodchenkov, who monitored all Russian athletes at the time, somewhat curiously agreed to help Fogel evade discovery during the testing process. His reasons for doing so were at first opaque; after all, Rodchenkov was a leading authority on anti-doping procedures, having developed a test that detected drugs in athletes’ systems up to six months after they were injected, expanding that window from a previously possible six weeks.
“Why was a guy whose job was to catch dopers helping an amateur prove that the system didn’t work?” Cogan says he asked at the time. The answer was more astonishing than they could have imagined; in late 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency published a bombshell report alleging the existence of a state-sponsored doping program in Russia, and proposing that Rodchenkov, from his Moscow lab, had served as its architect. This system, the report stated, had benefitted Russian athletes for years, including at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where Rodchenkov later admitted he helped trade out steroid-tainted urine for clean samples, helping multiple athletes evade detection and push Russia to an unprecedented 13 gold medals.
“Instantaneously, two FSB agents — the successor to the KGB — showed up at Grigory’s apartment, supposedly for his protection,” Cogan recalls. “But what he knew from having grown up in the Soviet Union was that these guys could be protection one day, and a threat the next.
“He knew that he was the key to everything that had happened in the Russian system, and that they would want him to disappear instantly because, without him, no one could really prove anything.”
Fearing assassination, Rodchenkov begged the “Icarus” filmmakers to fly him stateside. They obliged, putting him up in a Los Angeles safe house, where they spent over six months coaxing the scientist to open up about the scale of his involvement in the scheme, while finding a lawyer to represent him. Shortly after Rodchenkov left Russia, two of his colleagues, one a close friend, died under mysterious circumstances.
“It was extremely sobering,” says Fialkow, noting that the team repeatedly moved Rodchenkov between safe houses. “We were incredibly worried about Grigory’s welfare.”
“At that point, the film changed radically,” adds Cogan. “It went from a film about a guy trying to dope himself to an undercover investigation of the greatest sports fraud in Olympic history.”
The process, correspondingly, required the veteran producers to take steps they’d never considered for past projects.
“We had to use encrypted phones, encrypted e-mails and texts,” explains Fialkow. “We were nervous for Grigory’s [well-being] and worried the story could be hacked or get out into the wrong hands too early.”
“Icarus,” conceived as a “Super Size Me”-esque exposé, became Rodchenkov’s chance to come clean. The scientist, Cogan and Fialkow speculate, had felt used by Russian President Vladimir Putin at Sochi; the Olympics sent Putin’s popularity soaring, which likely blunted the backlash from civilians when Russia marched into Eastern Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in the days after the Olympics.
“He wanted out,” says Cogan. “Talking to Bryan, I think he knew that this was going to create a bomb and blow this whole situation up.”
To ensure his testimony became public as soon as possible, the filmmakers brought Rodchenkov to the New York Times, which published his diaries. After first delivering Rodchenkov’s story to the press, the producers kept working alongside Fogel to lock a cut of “Icarus” they could show the world.
“We were editing until the morning of Sundance, because the story kept changing,” explains Fialkow, referring to the premiere of “Icarus” at the January 2017 film festival, where Netflix purchased it for $5 million. “We started out making a film as filmmakers, we became whistleblowers, and we needed to tell a story with veracity that explained that whole holy-smokes situation.”
In December, after months of worldwide outrage precipitated by the whistleblowing, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, the harshest punishment in Olympic history. (One-hundred-sixty-nine Russian athletes instead competed as Olympic Athletes of Russia, a condition that denied Russia credit for their accomplishments.) Rodchenkov remains in hiding in the United States; the filmmakers no longer have access to him.
As “Icarus” competes for the best documentary Oscar this weekend, its producers express pride in their project, and hope that audiences will appreciate the global implications of what the film uncovered.
“The film demonstrates what Russia is willing to do, the lengths they are willing to go to, to pervert and corrupt international systems,” notes Cogan. In the aftermath of a US election tainted by foreign interference, as politicians continue to war over the extent of Russia’s role in making Donald Trump president, Fialkow believes the documentary is a kind of smoking gun. “Icarus” is “prima facie evidence” that Russia will meddle in global affairs to achieve its own ends, he says, “that they’re willing to cause harm to their own people, that they’re willing to lie and cheat. If they’re willing to do that, what else would they do?”Isaac Feldberg can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.