Sundance Interview: ICARUS’ Bryan Fogel

How a movie about doping become something way more important.

Icarus joins a line of docs at this year’s Sundance film festival that showcase the tenacity of the filmmaker to chase the story where it leads. What began as a personal story about director Bryan Fogel trying to see if injecting himself with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), under the guidance of Russian anti-doping agency head Grigory Rodchenkov, would lead to greater success in a grueling amateur bike race soon becomes an international story of sports espionage, cheating at the highest levels and the collapse of the Russian system of drug monitoring. Winner of a Special “Orwell” prize by the Sundance jury, the film is an extraordinary look into the nefarious business behind elite sports.

Following the film’s screening at Sundance there was a lively Q&A with Fogel. Here are a few of the highlights.

Why would Rodchenkov work with you to cheat?

First of all, you see in the film that he's an extraordinary character and he's extraordinarily mischievous. I think that in the beginning what really transpired was a friendship. To be around Grigory is to drink vodka. Even though I was training as an athlete I made the decision that I could spend a few days getting to know Grigory and in that process I think we really formed a friendship. We were both athletes, we were both interested in the same things, and when I signed him up I said, "This is what I want to do."

He had just come out of Sochi and in the back of his mind he knew that his time was limited and there were things coming. It was a spectacular thing for me in the beginning, how this guy was helping me. He's in Los Angeles and he's smuggling urine back from Moscow and I'm calling [my producer] saying, "You'll never believe what just happened!". But I do believe that Grigory had a bigger plan in mind. I think that he knew his time was running out and our friendship is what took precident.

On deciding to intervene and help Grigory escape Russia:

The decision was never about me as a filmmaker or what this story was. At that point, we had had a year and a half friendship and my friend was telling me that he was going to be killed. I had no reason to believe that he was lying. It literally happened like that – [I said I’d get him] a ticket and he was on a flight out of Moscow twelve hours later. Only then did I start realizing what he had been up to.

How did your relationship change?

It literally went from me being the subject and seeking his advice to me being his protector. [It was about] how I was going to navigate this for him and how were going to do this story justice and make sure that it wasn't taken away. There were so many times when we were scared that our own government might take this story and sit on it, that things wouldn't happen. So we had to work so hard to protect that story and I think it came from trust.

On how the Russians will respond to the allegations demonstrated in the film:

Nothing has changed from the Cold War. The Russian system is to deny, deny, deny, deny and now we have "alternate facts". 1984 is the number one book on Amazon right now. Suddenly the world is waking up to doping. I don't think it's that shocking when you look at the billions and trillions of dollars at stake.

Yet is this a localized problem?

I don't think that you can say  it's uniquely Russian, but I think that it's also not right to point the finger at others without having that evidence. I think in the case of Russia, this has been corroborated. We know that Kenya has been up to similar things, we know that Jamaica didn't have a good anti-doping system, but I think what we've seen in Russia, more so than the Lance Armstrong case, more so than maybe other countries, is we've seen this take on a truly geo-political place.

[Russia is a] country that paid $50 billion for the Olympics and used those Olympics to consolidate political power and then go invade another country and for national pride. This is an extraordinary situation but I think it also would be unwise to say that others are not doing this. But I don't think there's another country that could have masterminded with such complexity what Russia did. The reality is that it wasn't Sochi, it was London, it was Beijing, it goes all the way back. It never ended. There never was anti-doping in Russia. It didn't exist.

Was the International Olympic Committe right in not placing a total ban on Russia?

I think it was a spectacular fraud against every athlete in the world. Unfathomable. I was in the middle of this. I knew what evidence they had. I was the one helping provide the evidence. You have to remember that there was a report that came out back in November 2015 when Grigory was in fear of his life, and that report was contained to track and field. Why was that report contained to track and field? Because they didn't want to expand it. The world was begging WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), "Please expand this investigation!"

When the Sochi story comes out in the New York Times it's all proven to be true. Does something need to happen to the IOC and their organization? Absolutely. Does there have to be accountability? Absolutely. Because you talk about [Orwellian] doublethink, I mean what the hell?!

Why should any athlete go to the Olympics?! Why should you train? Why should you put your heart into it if they're not going to respect you? It's unfathomable.

On Grigory as whistleblower:

Articles have compared him to Russia's Snowden. I think that for our Justice Department it was a no brainer to put him into protective custody. Hopefully our government is going to do the right thing. They haven't decided whether or not they're pressing charges. I'm so hopeful that they will protect him because the United States does not protect its whistleblowers. They do not protect people like Grigory who are willing to come forward with information this extraordinary.

There's something very very deeply wrong with our country. I am hoping that Grigory will be protected and this movie will show that.