Icarus won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 90th Oscars! This profile of how the documentary revealed the Russian Olympic doping scandal was published in July 2017.
Before it blew the lid on a Russian doping scandal, Icarus was already a stranger-than-fiction endeavor.
In 2014, playwright-turned-filmmaker Bryan Fogel set out to make a gonzo documentary (streaming on Netflix Friday) about steroid use in the vein of 2004's Super Size Me, in which Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald's for a month to show the effect of fast food on the body.
Fogel, an amateur cyclist, decided to apply a similar concept to athletics by using performance-enhancing drugs while training for a race in France and seeing if he could pass an anti-doping test. The idea for the movie, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival, was sparked by disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his seven Tour de France wins in 2012 when he confessed to doping.
"I'm going, 'What's wrong with this picture,' that the most-tested athlete on planet Earth managed to get through 500 scientific tests" and not get caught, Fogel says. "I wanted to explore what these drugs did, whether the anti-doping system was working, and if I could get through the test, what does this mean not just for cycling, but all of sports?"
After a Los Angeles-based scientist backed out of the documentary, Fogel was referred to Grigory Rodchenkov, head of Russia's anti-doping program, to help administer hormone injections and smuggle his urine samples to Russia for testing.
But their relationship took a bizarre turn in November 2015, when news reports alleged that Rodchenkov was a key figure in Russia's state-sponsored doping program during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Fearing for his life, Rodchenkov fled to the U.S. with Fogel's help and confessed on camera that he oversaw the swapping out of hundreds of athletes' urine samples during the Sochi games.
"It all unfolded very quickly," producer Dan Cogan says. "By that point, Bryan and Grigory had developed a very close friendship and we felt it was our obligation, when he was in real need, to help him get to safety. And as he was here, we learned the full extent of what had gone on."
Fogel interviewed the eccentric scientist for seven months and pored through his documents before they shared the story with The New York Times last year.
"It was shocking because it was 1,000 times bigger than I imagined," Fogel says. "This wasn't just athletes doping and getting away with it — this was a well-orchestrated operation to completely cheat the Sochi Olympics. ... All of a sudden I'm sitting on a nuclear bomb of information."
Considered the Russian equivalent of Edward Snowden, Rodchenkov was placed in protective custody of the U.S. and only communicates with Fogel through legal counsel. (He has seen the film.) Fogel, meanwhile, is writing a TV series in the vein of Netflix's The Crown and FX's The Americans about the alleged 40-year history of Russia's state-run doping program, which Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied.
Given the film's real-life implications, and the daily news stories about Russia possibly hacking the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, "it's made it hard for me to enjoy the journey of this," Fogel says. "I go from, 'This is a crazy story about Russia and this scandal in sports,' to all of a sudden Russia is dominating the news."
Icarus shows "the extent to which they’ll go to win," he says. "The film has taken on this whole other meaning."