In July 2017, Russia’s Investigative Committee charged Russian Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov with “abuse of official powers,” alleging that he had destroyed Russian athletes’ doping tests in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. On September 28, 2017, the Russian Ministry issued a warrant for Rodchenkov’s arrest.
However, one year prior to the Russian Investigative Committee’s allegations, Rodchenkov fled from Russia to the United States with the help of American filmmaker Bryan Fogel. Rodchenkov entered the United States Witness Protection program in January 2016.
So, why would an American filmmaker help a doctor accused of cheating in the 2014 Winter Olympics flee Russia?
The Documentary and Bryan Fogel’s Discovery
Bryan Fogel’s Netflix documentary, Icarus, answers this question. This unlikely partnership started when Fogel began investigating doping trends in professional cycling. After learning about Lance Armstrong’s longtime use of performance-enhancing drugs, Fogel, an amateur cyclist, enlisted a team of doctors to help him “dope up” in order to win a prestigious amateur race called the “Haute Route.” Fogel hoped to prove that he could win the race with help from chemical enhancements. As he states in his documentary, “Originally, the idea I had was to prove the system in place to test athletes was bullshit.”
After discussing his plans with many doctors, he was introduced to Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who was then the Director of Moscow’s World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”) Laboratory. Rodchenkov offered to help Fogel navigate his way through a complex regime of steroids and anti-aging hormones. Over the next few months, Fogel injected himself with the drugs on a daily basis, which put him on track to compete with the top cyclists.
The documentary took an unexpected turn in November 2015 when WADA released a report tying Rodchenkov to state-sponsored doping efforts in Russia. Realizing there were much bigger issues at play, Fogel did what any good investigative filmmaker would do—he followed the story.
The Russian Doping Scheme
“Bryan, it’s a disaster, they’re killing people, cutting heads,” Rodchenkov told Fogel via Skype, describing the fallout after the Russian government received news of the WADA report. In the documentary, Rodchenkov admits to helping Russian Olympic athletes conceal positive urine samples at the 2014 Winter Olympics, but claims that Russian officials forced him to do it. He describes at length how members of the Russian intelligence service helped break into supposedly tamper-proof sample bottles each night. Rodchenkov would pass the samples through a small hole in the wall, quickly replacing them before testing the next morning. After the report was released, Russian officials forced Rodchenkov to resign as Laboratory Director, and he fled the country.
According to Rodchenkov, dozens of Russian athletes were doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics, including at least fifteen medal winners. On December 9, 2016, an independent report published by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren confirmed Rodchenkov’s account. The report outlined the history of Russian doping at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the 2013 Moscow Track and Field World Championship, and the 2014 Winter Olympics. McLaren described the 2014 Winter Olympics as the “apex” of Russia’s cheating, because Russia hosted the event and could control drug testing.
The Charges Against Rodchenkov
The film depicts Rodchenkov as a whistleblower. Since its release, others have named him “Russia’s Edward Snowden.” The Russian sports ministry has continually denied any state-sponsored doping. Rodchenkov remains in witness protection in the United States, fearing that he might be killed because of his public statements incriminating the Russian government and Vladimir Putin. Rodchenkov’s concerns about his safety may not be misguided—two of his close colleagues and former anti-doping officials unexpectedly died in February 2016, soon after the WADA report was released.
Former Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, now Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, called the allegations “a continuation of the information attack on Russian sport.” Instead of addressing the reporters directly, Mutko responded via conference with Russia’s state-run media outlet, “TASS.” According to Mutko, the claims are baseless, and were part of an attempt to discredit Russian sports ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Despite the evidence from McLaren’s report, which consisted of “1,166 pieces of proof, including emails, documents and scientific and forensic analysis of doping samples,” the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not ban any Russian athletes from any competitions, instead allowing the individual federations to decide whether Russian athletes may compete. In total, about a quarter of Russia’s athletes were not permitted to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Additionally, the International Paralympic Committee (“IPC”) banned the entire Russian Paralympic team from the 2016 Summer Paralympics.
As of September 2017, WADA has closed its investigation, having concluded that the McLaren report “simply may not be sufficient evidence required to sanction” the Russian athletes implicated. However, the United States and sixteen National Anti-Doping Organizations persist in demanding Russia’s ban from the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
As for Rodchenkov’s legal situation, the recent issuance of an arrest warrant may indicate that Russia will soon demand his extradition. However, Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, so that move is unlikely to have any real effect. More news about Rodchenkov will inevitably be released as his case proceeds, but until then, grab some popcorn, power up Netflix and sit back for Icarus’ two-hour shocking exposé.