Bryan Fogel, a resident of Malibu for 11 years, had not started off expecting to become involved in a geopolitical thriller when he began filming his very first documentary, “Icarus,” but due to what unfolded as he worked on the film, Russia was exposed as sponsoring a long-term, state-run doping and cheating program for Olympic athletes—the biggest scandal in sports history.
Fogel, a dedicated amateur cyclist, got the idea to make a documentary to uncover the truth about doping in sports after Lance Armstrong, a seven-time winner of the Tour de France, was banned from sanctioned Olympic sports for life as a result of long-term doping in 2012.
Fogel started off as the main character in his own documentary, conducting a kind of experiment with himself as the guinea pig. His intent was to get recommendations from sports doping experts on what drugs to take to enhance his own cycling performance, take those drugs, note whether they enhanced his own performance, and follow expert recommendations on how to avoid detection. He hoped to prove how easy it is for athletes to cheat the system.
An anti-doping scientist at UCLA introduced Fogel to Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Moscow’s anti-doping center, via Skype in 2014, who told him what drugs to take before a bike race in the Alps—a cocktail of prescription steroids and hormones. The two stayed in touch as the documentary proceeded.
In November 2015, Rodchenkov was named in a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency that tied him to state-sponsored doping efforts in Russia. The doctor contacted Fogel, afraid for his life, and the documentary then switched to focus on his story instead of Fogel’s.
“We’d been working together for two years and developed a friendship,” Fogel said. “When the allegations surfaced, he was told he’d be killed, and asked if I would help get him out of Russia. I was his lifeline.”
Rodchenkov fled to the U.S. and blew the whistle on Russia’s plan to cheat its way to winning the most Olympic gold medals. He provided all the hard evidence of tampering with urine samples and records needed to prove his case; as well as detailed descriptions of exactly how the Russians falsified urine test results at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Fogel and Rodchenkov took their story to the New York Times.
“What was important was to protect his life and get him seen as a whistleblower, because he had no ability to prove or re-test his samples,” Fogel said. “By breaking the story, it forced the authorities to act—who could do something—and it clearly was the right decision.”
The International Olympic Committee hedged on whether to bar Russia from the 2016 Rio Olympics; but did ban them from taking part in PyeongChang’s February 2018 Games.
Fogel confirmed that Rodchenkov is now in the U.S. witness protection program, and has no idea of his whereabouts.
Fogel did not set out to earn an Oscar for “Icarus”—in fact, most of his previous showbiz experience had been in comedy—he had been a stand-up comic and had developed, co-written and initially starred in the successful off-Broadway comedy play Jewtopia, which he later adapted into a feature film and a book.
When asked whether he ever expected to win the Oscar, Fogel explained the whirlwind the film had been on for all of 2017.
“We won at Sundance in January, which had 13,000 documentary submissions, and continued to work on the film,” he described. “‘Icarus’ was then acquired by Netflix, who campaigned for the film for seven months with nonstop promotion.”
“Winning the Academy Award was incredibly humbling, and it was a very long journey to get there” Fogel said. “When you make the Academy’s short list, you pray you’ll get the nomination. We were humbled and very pleased, and the Oscar helps draw attention to the bigger story. It was an incredible moment.”
Making the documentary “was a very long process day-to-day,” Fogel said. “I never could’ve imagined where the film would ultimately lead; but it was a four-year journey and I kept following the story.”
As for what comes next, Fogel says he’s looking at a lot of different options including feature films and scripted TV, as well as another documentary project he’ll announce in the near future.
The Malibu Film Society will give Fogel the Malibu Filmmaker Award on Saturday, March 24, with a catered reception at 6:30 p.m., award presentation and a screening of Icarus at 7:30 p.m. and Q&A after. For reservations and location, go to the MFS website (malibufilmsociety.org).