STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Doping has been one of the biggest stories in sports over the past several decades. Nearly every sport out there has been hit with news of athletes using illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Perhaps the most famous example is cyclist Lance Armstrong, who denied doping allegations for years and then finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in 2013. That is where a new documentary called "Icarus" begins.
Director and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel decides to explore the subject by taking his own regimen of performance-enhancing drugs. But halfway through the film, what began as an experiment turns into something much bigger. One of the film's main subjects blows the whistle on a massive Russian doping program with links to the highest levels of Russian government.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ICARUS")
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: If this is true, it is an unimaginable level of criminality.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: The International Olympic Committee calling the report very worrying.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: We asked the World Doping Agency to investigate immediately.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: The Justice Department is opening an investigation into Russian government officials, athletes, coaches and anti-doping authorities.
SMITH: I'm joined now by the film's director, Bryan Fogel. He's in our studios in New York. Bryan, thanks for joining us.
BRYAN FOGEL: I'm thrilled to be here.
SMITH: So, Bryan, this film begins as a very daring experiment. You decide to use performance-enhancing drugs yourself in a cycling race. The movie has all these really vivid images of you taking pills and injecting yourself with testosterone. I mean, like, at one point, you have needles lined up on the table. You're giving yourself shots in the butt. You have blood running down your leg. What was that like?
FOGEL: Besides being almost an absurdist comedy? (Laughter) I mean, it was a little ludicrous. But for what I was doing, which was, you know, going on this very, very detailed mission of charting what I was taking and then getting blood tests done every single week and collecting my urine and, you know, there was a very, very large extent to which I was going. But, you know, I was out to make a film. And I was documenting that process. So to that extent, I mean, there was a method and a purpose to the madness.
SMITH: So you don't go on this journey alone. You get this man Grigory Rodchenkov to oversee your steroid use and your training regime. And he has a very interesting position. He is the head of Moscow's anti-doping laboratory. He is quite a character. What was your first impression of him?
FOGEL: Well, Grigory at the time oversaw the testing of all Russian athletes across all sports and all international competitions in Russia of all athletes coming to Russia to compete on top of the Sochi games. And this guy is just this incredibly likable, enigmatic, larger-than-life personality.
SMITH: And this is very striking because he is the head of Russia's Anti-Doping Agency, and he's making all these jokes. And he's helping you beat doping tests. Did that strike you as strange that he agreed to do this?
FOGEL: Well, I mean, it was beyond strange. And it was jaw-dropping. And it was also why at that time before, you know, it pivoted, I felt like I still had a really interesting film. The fact that I've got this Russian scientist who was supposed to be catching athletes for doping breaking every single rule in the book to not only help me dope but to tell me what to do and then even go so far as to come to Los Angeles to collect all of my urine samples which I had been taking, to bring them back to Moscow to test them in his WADA-accredited lab. I mean, everything about what he was doing was against the rules.
SMITH: Right. WADA being the World Anti-Doping Agency?
FOGEL: That's correct. They're kind of like the United Nations of anti-doping.
SMITH: So you mentioned that things pivoted very quickly. As you're filming your documentary, the Russian anti-doping lab starts to come under fire. What was happening?
FOGEL: So right as I'm starting the actual program to dope myself, a German documentary comes out, like, a "60 Minutes" TV doc. And it has these two Russian whistleblowers that have fled Russia, went to Germany and have told this story of a state-sponsored doping system in Russia. They run this television program, and there's enough in it that sets off a WADA - World Anti-Doping Agency - investigation. So over the next year while I'm doping myself and Grigory's advising me and he's coming to Los Angeles and I'm going to Moscow and we're talking and Skyping everyday, he's also under investigation.
And November 2015, this 335-page report comes out basically saying that everything that the German documentary put forward is true. But not only that, that Grigory is the mastermind of this operation and that they believe that Russia is running a state-sponsored doping program. So suddenly, this is a crisis. And he's forced to resign from the lab by Vitaly Mutko, who is the sports minister. And Vitaly Mutko answers to one person and one person only, and that's Vladimir Putin.
SMITH: I mean, what are you thinking at this point when this report comes out?
FOGEL: It was a combination of, oh, my God, scared, shocked. Russia's suspended from world track and field. And then Putin is on television - on Russia-1 - holding an official press conference not only denying all the allegations of this report but that if any of this proves to be true, that it will be the individuals that are held accountable and that punishment will be absolute.
FOGEL: And at that point, Grigory has two FSB, KGB agents living in his apartment, quote, unquote, "guarding him." And five days after the report, I'm on Skype with Grigory, and Grigory is telling me that he has got word from other of his friends within the KGB, the FSB that they have planned his suicide and that he needs to escape.
SMITH: And things get so bad that Grigory flees to the United States and, in fact, he comes to stay with you.
FOGEL: This happened so fast. I mean, this is - six days after this report, Russia for whatever reason didn't have him on the do-not-fly list. And he's somehow able to get out of the country. I bought the plane ticket. I put it on my credit card. He comes with just a backpack in his hand and three hard drives. And we put them up in a safe house in Los Angeles.
And over the next month, I discover that not only is Grigory involved, Grigory is the mastermind of a spectacular unbelievable scandal that calls into question every medal ever won in the Olympic Games. And not only that, he oversaw the Sochi Olympics, where Russia won 33 medals. And they did it through this elaborate "Ocean's 11"-style scheme, where they had literally created holes in the laboratory to slip out the dirty urine samples of all the Russian athletes and swap out their urine with clean urine. And this guy was the only man on planet Earth who had this evidence. And he was able to prove it.
SMITH: Right. I mean, at one point in the documentary, he talks to a New York Times reporter. And there's a huge story in The New York Times about this. Suddenly, you're in the middle of a giant global conspiracy.
FOGEL: And a giant international scandal. And it was incredibly stressful. That six-month process between learning what I had learned to going to The New York Times was a daily crisis. Two of his friends died under mysterious circumstances in Russia, both of them. One, the head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, the other the former head of a Russian Anti-Doping Agency. Both die of heart attacks, age 52 and 59 within two weeks of each other.
Then, the Department of Justice and FBI show up and serve him with a subpoena. And eventually, bringing the story to The New York Times because we realized that if we didn't, not only might the story be buried, but nobody in the sporting world really was going to want to do anything about this. They all just wanted to push it under the rug because of the ramifications to the business.
SMITH: Why do you think he talked?
FOGEL: What happened at Sochi he was incredibly upset about because he had went from being a scientist, meaning his whole life is - yes, it's it's doing the exact opposite of what he should be doing, but he was using science to beat the system. There was a differentiation that he made in his mind. But at Sochi, this wasn't about science. This was just fraud.
This was literally like breaking into a bank vault and substituting real money for counterfeit money. It was spiraling out of control. And after Sochi, he was promised it would stop. Instead, he's doing it for the swimming world championships. He's doing it for the collegiate athletic world championships. And there's essentially no end in this. And as you also see in the film, as you see that he's disposable like so many others that betray the government or whatever...
SMITH: Right. He becomes very worried for his life and, in fact, goes into witness protection.
FOGEL: That's right. He...
SMITH: Is that where he is now?
FOGEL: He is in protective custody. And the reason why is the Department of Justice and FBI has been sitting on this case for the last 14 months. And we're very, very optimistic that our government is going to continue to protect him because regardless of the wrongs that he did, it was tremendous courage and honesty to come forward with this staggering amount of evidence and let the world know what had happened. And without him, we would still be in the dark about this.
SMITH: Bryan Fogel is a documentary filmmaker. His new film "Icarus" is out on Netflix this week. Bryan, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FOGEL: It has been a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.