Grigory Rodchenkov is not your typical whistleblower. In fact, some would even argue he shouldn’t be called one. He does not fit the description of a sentinel and will most likely not be winning awards for his efforts like Michael Woodford at Olympus or Sherron Watkins at Enron. For years, he chose country over truth; self over truth; maybe even survival over truth. But, in the end, with the help of filmmaker and writer Bryan Fogel, he chose truth over all of those things and did something remarkable.
At today’s morning session, Fogel shared a behind-the-scenes look at his Oscar-winning documentary thriller, ICARUS: The True Story Behind the Russian Doping Scandal and Corruption. Much like the fast pace of his film, he took attendees through the three-year-long journey of doping, investigation, interviewing, friendship and the exposition of a conspiracy that spanned more than 40 years.
But, ICARUS did not start out as a documentary about corruption within the Russian Olympic team. Fogel initially wanted to show how easy it was to get away with doping in professional sports. “I wasn’t surprised about Lance [Armstrong] and the other athletes who were doping,” Fogel said about the news that shattered the illusion of a cherished Tour de France winner. “What was surprising to me was that over 10 years and 500 drug tests, he passed them all. To this day, Lance has never tested positive.” Armstrong’s doping was uncovered through confessions from his fellow teammates, not failed drug tests.
Fogel said that the news of the widespread doping in cycling spurred an idea to show the world just how easy it was to not get caught. “I decided I wanted to prove that anti-doping is a fraud,” he said. But, he didn’t just want to prove it through research or a third-party; he wanted to discover it himself. He then had to find someone who would help him train for an amateur cycling race while mimicking Armstrong’s regimen and using performance-enhancing drugs.
After politely being told “no” by the former director of the UCLA Olympic lab, he was connected to Rodchenkov, who, at that time, was the director of the Russian Olympic lab in Moscow. Rodchenkov agreed to help Fogel cheat the system and allowed him to record their time together in person and via Skype. But, the film did not go as planned. After extreme pressure from both the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and Russian officials, Rodchenkov became the No. 1 target for either dismissal, or worse, death.
After booking a ticket for Rodchenkov on his credit card in the middle of the night, Fogel began a journey far more dangerous than he ever thought possible. “I knew at that time, it wasn’t about a movie; it was about protecting someone’s life,” he said. Together, the two partners worked with the New York Times to expose a state-sponsored doping scheme that had been ongoing in Russia for decades — and which directly led to Russia being banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Fogel helped Rodchenkov by assisting with legal counsel, immigration advice, coordination with the U.S. FBI, CIA, and DOJ and ultimately, his political asylum.
While Rodchenkov sits in federal witness protection, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are pushing for change in the way doping is punished. Just last week three U.S. legislators introduced a bill, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, which would criminalize doping in global competitions.
Throughout the documentary, Fogel references Rodchenkov’s favorite book, George Orwell’s 1984. Rodchenkov alludes to passages from this book over the course of their time together, even admitting that when he read it for the very first time in Russia (then the Soviet Union) it was on the banned reading list. He describes his own life as a series of events leading to his own "learning, understanding and acceptance" of a world much like the main character, Winston, experienced. He learned about doping when he was a college athlete at Moscow University and his mother gave him performance-enhancing drugs, perhaps desensitizing what was to come later on in his life. He understood what was expected of him and his colleagues to win at all costs. And finally, he accepted the norms of an environment with morals and codes on a level so unbelievably different from that of Western countries.
Rodchenkov quoted 1984 when talking to Fogel before leaving Russia to come to the U.S. “We will meet each other where there is no darkness,” he said. The darkness may now be lifted for Rodchenkov, but the light from Fogel’s film has still left many blinded. World Cup, anyone?