Cyclist and filmmaker Bryan Fogel sets out on an audacious plan to prove the fallibility of anti-doping tests - but what he came away with is much more revealing
When we first meet Grigory Rodchenkov in the Netflix documentary Icarus, which was widely released last week, it’s via a Skype call - and the respected head of the World Anti Doping Agency-accredited Moscow drug testing laboratory is shirtless and somewhat disheveled as he listens to filmmaker and cyclist Bryan Fogel lay out an audacious plan. (If you haven't already seen it, you can catch the trailer here.)
Fogel wants to make a film documenting his scheme to dope and race the arduous Mavic Haute Route, all while evading any positive tests, as a means to expose the fallibility of the very testing regime of which Rodchenkov is a vital part. Will Rodchenkov help him, asks Fogel? Rodchenkov asks a few questions, nods at the answers, and then readily agrees, matter-of-factly laying out what Fogel should do to accomplish his goal.
(Spoiler alert: If you haven't watched Icarus yet, we recommend you catch the movie on Netflix first and come back to read this interview.)
We then meet an anti-aging doctor who freely prescribes the healthy, relatively young Fogel with drugs like growth hormone and testosterone. And we see Fogel himself taking the drugs (along with EPO) and dramatically improving his performance on the bike. In one test, we learn he’s improved from 250 watts at threshold to almost 350 — at Fogel’s relatively light weight and domestic pro level of fitness. (EPO works, people.)
But the moral questions involved in Fogel’s personal quest quickly fall to the wayside as the story takes a startling turn with Rodchenkov’s moral ambivalence as foreshadowing: Rodchenkov is not merely helping Fogel evade doping tests. He’s at the heart of a massive program, sponsored and condoned by the highest levels of the Russian state, helping elite Russian athletes win medals through doping. As the story deepens, Fogel finds himself at the centre of one of the most massive doping conspiracies ever unveiled, rivalled only by the East German program detailed in Steven Ungerleider’s book, Faust’s Gold.
In an interview with our American sister title Bicycling, Fogel said when he realised the size and scale of what he’d stumbled on, he was taken aback. “There was a huge sense of responsibility and burden because I understood what this was and how fragile this story was,” he says. “And I was essentially in the middle of it.”