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Filmmaker Bryan Fogel did not set out to take down one of the globe’s great sporting powers. He just wanted to know how hard it is to pass a drug test. It was 2013 and seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong had confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs, despite having cleared hundreds of doping screenings throughout his career. Soon after, Fogel, an amateur road cyclist and one of the two former stand-up comics behind the Off Broadway play Jewtopia, began a quest to uncover the fallacies of anti-doping systems in sports. He searched for a subject for the documentary that would become Icarus—someone who would submit to a battery of pills, testosterone shots, and urine samples—to see if he, like Armstrong, could slip through the doping cracks. Six months into his search, though, Fogel realized there was only one person he could count on for such a renegade mission: himself.

“Bryan came to us with this very mischievous, naughty project, which was that he was going to dope himself and try to get through the doping controls clean to prove that the system was a scam,” said producer Dan Cogan. “I love projects that make trouble.” This proved to be something of an understatement. During the course of their investigation, Fogel recruited a Russian scientist named Grigory Rodchenkov—the head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory—to manage his steroid use and training regimen. Rodchenkov, who oversaw the testing of all Russian athletes at the time, unexpectedly began offering Fogel tips on how to game the system.

“Sometimes I think that, subconsciously, really deep down, he wanted out,” Fogel said about why he thinks Rodchenkov agreed to participate. “I think he knew that if he talked to me, and all this came out, he would finally be rid of this world. Wanting that freedom, even if the way he achieved it was self-destructive, was part of what was motivating him.”

In a surreal series of events that began in December 2014, a German news documentary reported that the doping system in Russia was state-sponsored; the World Anti-Doping Agency launched an investigation that alleged Rodchenkov was the mastermind of Russia’s doping program; Rodchenkov was forced to resign; and Vladimir Putin held a press conference in which he bizarrely promised to punish anyone responsible for the alleged doping violations he denied were true. The Icarus team kept filming.

“All of a sudden, this nutty Russian scientist we had been considering a secondary character in the documentary is at the center of this worldwide doping scandal,” Cogan said. “[Rodchenkov] called Bryan up and said, ‘I’m going to be assassinated if I stay in Moscow and I need you to save me.’ Bryan bought him a plane ticket, brought him to the U.S.A., and kept him in hiding from the Russians. Icarus was suddenly a completely different project.”

“Over the next seven months, Dan and I and the team moved [Rodchenkov] to four different safe houses,” said Fogel. “We moved our production offices four times and worked with him over those months to compile his evidence, translate [it], and bring that evidence to The New York Times, which published his diaries. I felt a deep ethical and moral obligation to help him bring this information forward. During this seven-month period, we weren’t really thinking about making the movie. This was the journey we were on and we wanted it to be documented.”

In December 2017, after The New York Times published Rodchenkov’s evidence, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea—the most significant punishment ever delivered by the I.O.C. “It was really because of Grigory’s bravery in coming forward, and his lawyer Jim Walden’s constant work to make sure the I.O.C. protected him,” said Fogel, who has not been able to communicate with Rodchenkov for many months. “We continue to be deeply concerned about his well-being. I think what’s fruitful for us now is that the movie keeps the spotlight on Grigory so that he can be safe.”

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As for Armstrong, the filmmakers discovered that the disgraced cyclist had seen Icarus after he tweeted his support of the film in December. Though Armstrong seems satisfied to be outside of the doping controversy, he has been vocal in his praise of the film, and even hosted a screening.

“He appreciated the fact that we told the doping story in a very broad way that explained it as a systemic problem,” said Cogan. “He found that really interesting.”

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Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fair’s website.

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