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'He was going to be killed to cover-up his information': the terrifying truth behind sports doping

New Netflix documentary Icarus charts Bryan Fogel’s incredible relationship with Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov.

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

George Orwell, ’1984′.

BRYAN FOGEL RACED the Haute Route, that most gruelling of amateur cycles, collapsed afterwards in a helpless mound of pain, suffering and exhaustion and came to a realisation. He was a decent cyclist and had just pushed his body to the absolute brink. And yet, there was a group of ten or so other riders who still finished higher than him in the rankings. It made him wonder. Speculate.

In 2013, he had watched Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey about how he had taken performance-enhancing drugs. Yet, something about it always baffled and intrigued Fogel. How had Armstrong never failed a single test? If the athlete was broken, what did it say about the system?

So, the plan was pretty straightforward. The following year Fogel would return to the Haute Route. But this time, he’d be doping. The aim? To prove just how easy it is to cheat and not get caught. Everything would be filmed and subsequently released as a documentary to shine a light on anti-doping practices and how simple it is to outsmart them. Even for amateur cyclists.

But, he needed help. He needed guys on the inside to advise, oversee and guide him through the process. Initially he pitched the idea, the experiment to Don Catlin, an American anti-doping expert and who founded the Olympic Analytical Laboratory at UCLA in the 1980s. But, Catlin got cold feet and withdrew from the project before it had even started. Still, he recommended another name to Fogel. An old friend of his. A Russian scientist called Grigory Rodchenkov.

Icarus

A former athlete, Rodchenkov is a larger-than-life personality and incredibly charismatic. Through the course of a litany of video Skype calls, the pair build up a close bond. Rodchenkov runs a laboratory, the Anti-Doping Centre, in Moscow. Many times, he speaks to Fogel while topless in his kitchen. He makes silly jokes. He chastises his pet dog. Sometimes, we see his wife in the background. But, he’s also forensic about and deeply invested in Fogel’s doping plan. At one stage, as a symbol of their developing friendship, he comes to Los Angeles, stays with Fogel and, magician-like, makes complete sense of the injections, the drugs and the vast array of urine samples.

“The best laboratory will be puzzled with your piss,” he tells Fogel at one stage.

Fogel’s return to the Haute Route does not go according to plan. Technical issues with his bike completely ruin his chances of breaking the top-ten, despite him being in incredible physical condition. But it’s at that stage that the film moves from science documentary to dark, sinister thriller.

Source: Netflix/YouTube

In the aftermath of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, German TV station ARD released a damning investigation into Russia’s alleged sophisticated doping practices and how the entire thing was controlled by the state. Rodchenko was a lead character but, on camera, denied what two whistleblowers – athlete Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaly, claimed.

GR_LA_US

But the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) felt the scale of the story warranted an investigation. In November 2015, they released their report and identified Rodchenko as the mastermind behind the entire operation.

Communication between him and Fogel continued. But where he had initially tried to play down Fogel’s concerns and the controversy in general, Rodchenko was now fearing the consequences of WADA’s big reveal. The Skype calls were now devoid of any laughter. His wife could be heard shouting nervously off-camera. Rodchenko was constantly shifting and twitching in his chair. Conversations were purposely brief.

And it was then that Fogel recognised his film was actually about something completely different.

“Everything happened so fast,” Fogel tells The42.

“The WADA report comes out November 9. The following day, Grigory resigns from the lab. The following day, the lab takes his accreditation. Then, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) suspends Russia. On November 13, (then-Russian sports minister) Vitaly Mutko appears on television saying, ‘We know nothing – this is all lies.’ The following day, Putin is on television saying, ‘Not only is this lies, individuals will be held accountable and punishment will be absolute.’”

In one remarkable sequence, an ashen-faced Rodchenko speaks to Fogel in a video call and frantically asks him to get him a flight from Moscow to LA. It’s a desperate plea from a man who fears for his life.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into because there was no time,” Fogel says.

Icarus

“In that moment it wasn’t about making a film at all. It was about a friend in a spectacular crisis on the other side of the world telling me he was going to be killed if I didn’t help him.

There was the friendship first and that was two years in the making. That friendship ultimately allowed for everything else to happen because the two of us truly trusted each other. It was as shocking to me as it was to anyone else following the story. But to me everything was on an incredibly personal level. This person that had become my friend over two years not only was being alleged to be this mastermind of a huge scandal and cover-up but also his life was in jeopardy and, presumably, he was going to be killed to cover-up his information. That was a pretty stressful realisation. It also became clear to me, very shortly after that – when he came to Los Angeles – that the movie I was making was no longer that movie.”

Rodchenkov gets to LA. The producers put him up in a safe house while they figure out a plan. One night, while watching television, Rodchenkov sees a news report about Nikita Kamaev, a friend and former colleague, dying of an alleged heart attack just two months after resigning in the wake of the WADA controversy. Rodchenkov is overcome. He phones his family back in Russia. He’s monosyllabic with his wife. He’s become a different person.

“What was happening was very real. It was the range of human emotions,” Fogel says.

“When we connected, he was at a different time in his life. He’s incredibly fun, warm, an outgoing person. That’s what allowed our friendship to blossom. A kind of bromance. Then, seeing this other side to somebody who had been living such a complex life, who had all these things he was involved in and it was a complete 180 from his life at home.

He saw the logical conclusion. It was no longer about the science. It was a criminal operation and, in that regard, he became increasingly desperate to tell his story. And once his life was at stake and once there was no reason to believe he was going to survive, especially with the information he knew and the Russian denials, it became – for him – a pretty easy decision. His burden became my burden and I had to help him.”

Icarus

Rodchenkov, as is known at this stage, became a whistleblower, first detailing to Fogel and then to the New York Times, everything he knew about Russia’s doping programme. The detail was staggering. Stories of shadows lurking in labs during the Sochi Olympics and breaking supposedly tamper-proof samples of contaminated urine and swapping it with clean, untraceable versions through a tiny hole in the wall. And all for Mother Russia.

“The story he told me, I never had disbelief,” Fogel says.

“But it was so big and so crazy. The expense they went to, the idea the entire system was a fraud, the Russian anti-doping agency was only acting to conceal that the athletes were doping, the lab was a part of it, the athletes themselves were in on it…And when you looked at how crazy and well-orchestrated this was and how big a scandal it was, it was mind-boggling.”

Fogel arranges a meeting with some high-ranking anti-doping officials to try and get across the scale of what had gone on and for how long. He wanted to stress just how imperative it was for strong action to be taken.

What follows is something extraordinary. Fogel, on Rodchenkov’s behalf, takes the group through a play-by-play of four decades worth of Russian doping.

“This is the spreadsheet of every single Russian athlete on the state‑mandated protocol,” he tells them.

“What every single athlete was taking in London (for the 2012 Summer Olympics), including their sample numbers and collection.”

The reaction in the room is incredible. There’s silence. Beckie Scott, the head of WADA’s Athletes Commission, her eyes focused intently on Fogel, sits with her mouth agog. Dr Christiane Ayotte, who heads up the Doping Control Laboratory in Montreal, puts her hands to her face in shock.

“When Christiane goes back and tests these samples correctly she will find them all positive,” Fogel says.

“We have all their protocols before the London Games. We have the same for Beijing. This goes back to 1968. There never was any anti-doping in Russia ever.”

When Richard McClaren later published his WADA report into Rodchenkov’s allegations in July 2016 – corroborating everything he had said – one recommendation was to ban Russia from both the Olympics and Paralympics that were set for Brazil just a few weeks later.

Icarus

Yet, that didn’t happen. Despite the uproar, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), decided against it. Despite the litany of evidence that showed state-sponsored cheating, there was to be no IOC ban. Instead, Bach passed the buck to individual sport federations to decide.

When I bring up the IOC’s reaction, Fogel responds with increasing irritation.

“There are different levels of fraud that are revealed in this film,” he says.

“Probably the most shocking thing to me – being so invested in this story – was how the IOC was and how the Olympics reacted and, in a way, participated, in this spectacular fraud.

When we break the story to the New York Times, I get three letters from Thomas Bach and all three are assuring me and Grigory that their investigation is being taken very seriously and they’re going to do the right thing. And the last letter I receive says they have full faith in Richard McClaren and that they will uphold his findings and believe whatever he discovers to be the truth. To have the report come out in the July and have it corroborate everything – fully and scientifically – every single thing Grigory (and other unnamed individuals) put forward…and then to have every newspaper and anti-doping agency in the world calling for Russia to be removed from the Summer Olympics and then have the President of the Olympics to pass the responsibility to the sporting federations and take no action to protect the organisation and every clean athlete in the world…it was shocking. It was just shocking.

There was a moment where I felt the Olympics – as an organisation – had the chance to stand up. It was no longer about the individual athlete – whether one was clean or another was dirty – this was about a spectacular fraud that a country had perpetrated on the world for 40 years. I don’t know what message it sends the rest of the world or any athlete who is trying to ‘play by the rules’ or respect the Olympic values. That was utterly shocking to me. As big a fraud as what’s presented in the film regarding what Russia participated in.”

One question that never is answered in the film is why Grigory Rodchenkov agreed to help Fogel in the first place.

Icarus

In many ways, it’s left to the audience to decide. Ultimately, Rodchenkov is a flawed hero. He is a paradox. He is tainted but ultimately risks a lot to do the right thing.

“He had been involved in the system for so many years,” Fogel says.

“He went from being a genius scientist – in many ways, all of the other scientists in all of the other countries are trying to get around the science he created – and he enjoyed the whole cat and mouse about it. But when it stopped being about the science and was purely a fraud and he was there to clean out the crap for the ministry, his perception changed and his desire to do something about it changed.”

Through the course of the documentary, Rodchenkov quotes from his favourite book – George Orwell’s ’1984′.

And the notion of Orwell’s doublethink plays a crucial role in Icarus: holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time and thinking both to be the truth.

Lance Armstrong – in many ways the springboard for Fogel’s film – believed he was a champion while he simultaneously took drugs to be the best.  The IOC believe in Olympic values but allow convicted cheaters take their places at a start line. And Rodchenkov worked in an anti-doping laboratory while concocting drug cocktails for Russian athletes to cheat their way to victory.

It comes back to Fogel’s original thought process: if the athletes are bad, what does it say about everything and everyone around them? As he found out, you can’t cheat on your own. Yet, by the IOC’s response to the Russian scandal, they clearly make the individual the scapegoat and are too weak to get to the root of the problem.

As our interview wraps, there’s another quote from ’1984′ that I put to Fogel.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

As doping gets even more intelligent, catching the cheats becomes even more difficult. Science will always have a head start.

“I don’t think there’s ever a solution to doping in sport because it’s so much more complicated than that,” he says.

“The future is even more complicated than the past because of what’s happening in medical advances in science. The future will continue to be at a genetic level. You’re an embryo and your parents decide you’re going to be 6’4 and not 5’9. You’ll have blue eyes instead of brown eyes. You’ll be engineered to combat certain deficiencies – asthma, cancer, Alzheimers – all of them will be eliminated in the embryo. When you have that technology, that’s actually happening, it presents a very different future for the athlete of the future. It calls into question whatever the illusion of ‘clean sport’ can ever be. And, what even is that?”

All images by kind permission of Netflix. 

Icarus is currently available to watch on Netflix. 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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