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‘Icarus’ Sundance Documentary Director Was Scared When Exposing Russian Olympic Doping Scandal

Bryan Fogel had created a nice cottage industry when he wrote, directed, and performed in the romantic comedy “Jewtopia.” He took the stage play from Los Angeles to New York, then directed the feature film version released in 2013.

Admittedly “desperate not to go through the rest of life as the ‘Jewtopia’-guy,” though, Fogel turned to his youthful passion of bicycle racing for his next project. Now he’s the force behind the documentary film that helped break one of the biggest sports stories of recent years, even before becoming one of the buzziest titles at the start of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Icarus,” set to screen Friday morning as part of the U.S. documentary competition, started as a kind of “Super Size Me” for athletes. Amateur cyclist Fogel planned to explore the impacts of performance-enhancing drugs, by doping himself, and use film to tell about how the chemicals changed him.

His investigation led him to first an American anti-doping authority, who, in turn, pointed him to Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Fogel and Rodchenkov, once himself a world class runner, met several months after the Sochi Games. And the American filmmaker soon had the Russian helping him to aid his cycling workouts with illegal drugs. (“You could train harder and recover faster,” Fogel said. “But if you don’t have the genetics, all the drugs in the world aren’t going to make you Lance Armstrong.”)

The more miraculous revelations were not from the chemicals, but the stories that Rodchenkov was delivering to Fogel. He confided to Fogel that, rather than assuring his countrymen followed anti-doping rules in Sochi, he had helped them to evade detection. “He tells me he believes it is impossible to win a gold medal in Olympic Games, in any sport, without pharmacological help,” Fogel recalled this week. “That was pretty amazing.”

Fogel was already editing his film on his own doping efforts, but realized he was sitting on a potential “nuclear bomb.” That sense was only enhanced in 2015, when a voluminous report suggested his new friend was the mastermind of a state-sponsored Russian doping program.

The revelations caused a massive revamp of “Icarus,” with Fogel incorporating thousands of documents and emails that Rodchenkov passed to him about the performance-enhancing drug program. The filmmaker soon took on double duty archiving all the material. He helped arrange for the Russian to meet with reporters from the New York Times, who last May published the first detailed account of how the Russians conspired to evade doping rules.

“It made you wonder, maybe the Cold War never ended, maybe the Russians never ended, maybe ever medal run by the Russians in the Olympics was dirty,” said Fogel, 42. “At that point, I am scared. I am really scared.”

The revelations are explosive enough, that American investigators put Rodchenkov into protective custody. The reports lead to a debate over whether the Russian team should be banned, wholesale from last summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, though most were eventually allowed to attend.

The resulting film now provokes much broader questions, especially given the furor over President-elect Donald Trump’s supportive comments about Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. Those who have seen “Icarus” say it has elements of an expose and thriller, wrapped into a documentary.

“I am hoping it will be distributed worldwide and be seen by tens of millions of people,” said Fogel. “It should be a real eye-opener for people.”

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