When Bryan Fogel was young, he watched Greg LeMond become the first American to win the Tour de France in 1986. Fogel decided that bike racing was for him. He began training when he was 13 and started to win some junior races. He eventually competed against some of the best amateur racers who’d become the top pro Americans. And then he found his ultimate champion rider.

In 1999, Lance Armstrong came back from a near-fatal fight against testicular cancer to win his first of seven Tour de France races. The storybook comeback helped impel thousands of riders, including Fogel. Some dared for years to nip at Armstrong’s heels with doping accusations. He always vehmently denied everything. But the whispers grew to shouts when some of his ex-teammates testified against him. The United States Anti-Doping Agency concluded in 2012 that the “serial cheat” had used performance-enhancing drugs for years and stripped him of his Tour de France titles. And when on Jan. 14, 2013, TV personality Oprah Winfrey asked Armstrong, “Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?” he finally had to grudgingly answer, “Yes.”

Fogel was disappointed in Armstrong’s fall, but he’d always suspected that he’d been doping. However, Fogel was fascinated that Armstrong could avoid detection for so long. “The most-tested athlete on planet Earth could get away with 500 tests clean without ever testing positive, and to this day he’s never tested positive,” Fogel said in a recent Fraud Magazine interview. (Fogel was a keynoter at the 29th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference in June.) Don Catlin, M.D., the founder of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, the first U.S. anti-doping lab, tested Armstrong at least 50 times and never caught him.

“The bigger issue was not what’s wrong with Lance Armstrong, who’s being blamed essentially as the mastermind of this biggest conspiracy in sport history, this incredible crime that he had committed,” he said. “Clearly this [anti-doping] system, which is being paraded around the world as working, is a fraud.”

So, in 2014, Fogel decided that he’d start a performance-enhancing drug regimen, enter a grueling amateur road race, prove how easy it was to cheat and film the whole thing for a documentary. Kind of a Morgan Spurlock “Super Size Me” film but with performance-enhancing drugs replacing Big Macs.

Guinea pig for doping

In August 2014, Fogel entered the Haute Route — a seven-day amateur race in the French Alps — with no drugs in his system. He placed 14th out of 440 cyclists, but he was “destroyed,” he said. His plan then was to start doping and race the Haute (which he calls the “hardest amateur cycling race on the planet”) the next year. He believed that if he could do that and get away with it, any athlete could. Fogel asked Catlin if he’d design and monitor his doping program to bypass all world controls. Catlin demurred, but said he’d contact an old friend, Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of the Olympic lab in Moscow, to see if he could help Fogel.

Fogel met with Rodchenkov in July of 2014 at an anti-doping conference in Eugene, Oregon, right after the Sochi Olympics. “We kind of bonded; we hit it off,” Fogel said. “I told him what I wanted to do, and surprisingly he said, okay I’ll help you. … In his mind he thought, Bryan’s an amateur athlete, he’s not a professional; so even though I’m helping him cheat I’m only showing why the system doesn’t work.”

Under Rodchenkov’s direction, Fogel obtained testosterone, human growth hormone (HGH), erythropoietin (EPO) and other drugs from a local anti-aging physician. He then worked with a sport physiologist to improve his performance. Rodchenkov told him to begin collecting his dirty urine and freeze it.

Fogel was confused why Rodchenkov — who did all the drug testing for the Sochi Olympics — agreed to help Fogel dope because he was supposed to catch athletes, not enable them. Then Rodchenkov, during a Skype session, asks Fogel if he’s “seen movie with me?” What movie? Rodchenkov had appeared in the Dec. 9, 2014, German ARD public TV documentary, “The Doping Secret: How Russia Makes its Winners,” which alleged that 99 percent of Russian Olympians were doping, and some athletes said Rodchenkov was helping them do that. And now the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a group established by the International Olympic Committee, was investigating Rodchenkov.

Who was this man that Fogel was working with closely on his documentary? He told Fogel that he’d been a competitive runner when he was at Moscow University. And his performances improved after his mother began injecting him with the anabolic steroid, stanozolol.

On May 15, 2015, Rodchenkov flew to Los Angeles to collect Fogel’s urine samples and smuggle them back into Russia to test. By this time they’d become good friends.

Fogel undergoes tests before embarking on his doping regimen. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

After five months of doping, Fogel’s measured power was 20 percent higher than the year before as he headed into his second Haute Route race in the French Alps in August 2015. “You are like a pioneer,” Rodchenkov said in the documentary. “I am now like a priest. I’m healing your doping paranoia. You are free. You have enough power, and God is with you. You are sentenced to win.” But he doesn’t win. His bicycle’s mechanical problems hindered him, and he placed 27th. But Fogel brought the last of his urine to Europe to complete his “biological passport,” as Rodchenkov puts it, and he visited him in Moscow in September 2015 to complete some final testing in the Anti-Doping Centre.

WADA reckoning day

On Nov. 9, 2015, the WADA independent commission released its first report a year after the German TV special on Russian doping. The commission members said they found in Russia a deeply rooted culture of cheating; exploitation of athletes; confirmed athletes cheating; confirmed involvement by doctors, coaches and laboratory personnel; and corruption and bribery within the International Association of Athletics Federations. “It’s worse than we thought,” said Richard Pound, president of the commission, during a press conference. “We have found cover-ups. We found destruction of samples in the laboratories. We found payments of money in order to conceal doping tests. … Our conclusion was that all of this could not have happened, without the knowledge and either actual or implied consent of the state authorities.”

The report identified Rodchenkov as “an aider and abettor of the doping activities.”

Pound said at the press conference that it was hard to understand what the Russian state interest in athletes’ urine would be. “One of our big concerns about tests were the 1,400 that were destroyed by the director of the Moscow laboratory. In fact, our recommendation is the director of the laboratory be removed from his position, that the WADA accreditation be withdrawn, and the Russian Federation be suspended.” WADA accepted the commission’s recommendations and suspended Russia’s sports drug-testing lab and the minister of sport asked Rodchenkov to resign.

“They don’t accept the independent commission at all,” said Rodchenkov during a Skype talk with Fogel. “They’re deliberately lying. … It means I could be tossed under the bus anytime.” On Nov. 13, 2015, the IAAF council voted to suspend the Russian Athletic Federation from all competition, including the Rio Olympics. Rodchenkov had to flee Russia. Fogel bought him a round-trip ticket (to avoid suspicion) and on Nov. 17, Rodchenkov flew to L.A.

Protect the flawed whistleblower

Fogel’s film now changes from an amateur cyclist’s modest quest to illustrate the fraudulent global anti-doping system into a harrowing thriller to protect the life of the world’s top doping scientist. Fogel, his producer and others rented Rodchenkov an apartment and found him an attorney.

On Feb. 15, 2016, Nikita Kamaev, the former executive director of the Russian anti-doping agency (RUSADA) unexpectedly died of an apparent massive heart attack two months after he resigned. He had no previous history of heart problems. Kamaev was Rodchenkov’s longtime friend. “He never complained about his heart or any health problem,” Rodchenkov said in the movie. Now Rodchenkov and Fogel were looking over their shoulders.

In the beginning of March, two FBI agents came to Rodchenkov’s supposed safe apartment in L.A. and served him with a U.S. district court subpoena to testify before a grand jury in New York.

On May 5-7, 2016, Rodchenkov and Fogel met with a team of reporters at The New York Times and provided them with evidence and interviews. On May 7-10 of that year Rodchenkov provided details of Russian state-sponsored doping to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). He didn’t tell them that he’d shared much of the same information with the Times. On May 12, 2016, the Times printed its first story on Rodchenkov’s revelations, Russian Insider Said State-Run Doping Fueled Olympic Gold, by Rebecca R. Ruiz.

Rodchenkov also shared his detailed personal diaries with DOJ officials and the Times. (See Olympic Doping Diaries: Chemist’s Notes Bolster Case Against Russia, by Rebecca R. Ruiz, The New York Times, Nov. 28, 2017.)

Urine swapping at Sochi

During the opening of the Sochi Olympics, IOC President Thomas Bach, said, “And to you, my fellow Olympic athletes, I say, respect the rules, play fair, be clean.” At least one team ignored his admonition.

The Russian government had decided to use performance-enhancing drugs not just before but during the 2014 Sochi Olympics so they could be at their top levels. After a poor showing at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided the country had to rake in the medals on home soil at Sochi.

The May 12, 2016, New York Times article described how Rodchenkov, who ran the drug-testing laboratory at Sochi, developed a three-drug cocktail of banned substances — metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone — that he mixed with liquor and gave to dozens of Russian athletes. Late at night during Sochi, Rodchenkov said, Russian intelligence agents from the FSB (the former Soviet KGB) and anti-doping experts would switch the dirty urine of the Russian medal winners for that day with their clean urine, which the athletes had provided months earlier. The Russians would swap the urine bottles through a small hole in the wall of a secret room in the laboratory. They were able to remove the caps of the supposedly impenetrable urine bottles. Rodchenkov estimated that as many as 100 dirty urine samples were destroyed.

“We were fully equipped, knowledgeable, experienced and perfectly prepared for Sochi like never before,” Rodchenkov said in the Times article. “It was working like a Swiss watch.” Russia received the most medals at Sochi — 33 — of which 13 were gold.

According to the movie, Vitaly Mutko, the minister of sport at the time, dismissed Rodchenkov’s claims in the Times article as “nonsense.” Yuri Nagornykh, then deputy sports minister, said “there has never been and there is not any doping program.” Putin said Rodchenkov’s claims were the “slander of a turncoat.”

On May 17, 2016, the DOJ officially launched an investigation into Russian doping allegations based on Rodchenkov’s testimony. And WADA sent a letter to Rodchenkov asking to meet with him. Meanwhile, Russia had hacked into Rodchenkov’s and Fogel’s emails and phone calls.

On May 20, 2016, Fogel and Dan Cogan, producer of ICARUS, met with WADA officials to supply them with Rodchenkov’s evidence. WADA then appointed Richard McLaren, a law professor, specializing in sports law, at Western University in Ontario, Canada, to independently investigate Rodchenkov’s claims. On June 17, the IAAF, after receiving additional evidence from Rodchenkov, upheld its ban on Russia, which barred the entire track and field team from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Fogel and producer Dan Cogan celebrate. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

And then on July 18, 2016, McLaren, while presenting his WADA commission report, said, “The investigation has established the findings set out in the report beyond a reasonable doubt. Our experts were to determine if [Russian urine bottle] samples [at the Sochi Olympics] had scratches and marks on the inside of the bottle caps, representative of a tool used to open the cap.

“Of the set of samples suspected of being swapped we were able to confirm … 100 percent had evidence of tampering. … The Moscow laboratory operated for the protection of doped Russian athletes within a state-directed, fail-safe system,” McLaren said.

“I can say without a doubt Dr. Rodchenkov is telling the truth and was a truthful witness,” he said. “I was able to corroborate that because of all the scientific and forensic information.”

On the same day, July 18, two weeks before the start of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, WADA recommended that all Russian athletes across all events be banned from competition. And then nine days before the Olympics, the U.S. federal government placed Rodchenkov in protective custody and whisked him away to parts unknown.

IOC said ‘nyet’

On July 25, 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) dismissed WADA’s recommendation. Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, said they decided that Russian athletes would be allowed to participate in the Rio Olympics after all, despite all the irrefutable evidence of doping at Sochi.

The Russian government stripped Rodchenkov of his personal assets and opened criminal proceedings against him, according to the documentary. The Russians interrogated his wife, children and sister, searched their homes and confiscated their passports.

On Dec. 9, 2016, McClaren said in his second report that more than 1,000 Russian competitors from 2011 to 2015 in various sports benefitted from the cover-up. “It is impossible to know how deep and how far back this conspiracy goes,” he said.

On Dec. 5, 2017, the IOC suspended the Russian Olympic Committee from the 2018 Winter Olympics and barred Russia’s Olympic team. The IOC allowed each Russian athlete who had no previous drug violations and a consistent history of drug testing to compete under the Olympic flag (not the Russian flag) as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia.” (See Russia Banned From Winter Olympics by I.O.C., by Rebecca R. Ruiz and Tariq Panja, The New York Times, Dec. 5, 2017.)

No resolution

The story is far from over. Rodchenkov remains in exile in U.S. protective custody. As of press time, he awaits a decision on his application for political asylum. In April, he sought to dismiss a libel lawsuit against him filed by Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian owner of the Brooklyn Nets, on behalf of three Russian biathletes whose medals from the Sochi Games were stripped for doping. Rodchenkov also filed a countersuit against Prokhorov, the former president of Russia’s biatholon. Rodchenkov’s lawyers say Prokhorov’s support of the Russian biathletes is meant to divulge Rodchenkov’s location. Rodchenkov released a statement saying he is “healthy, well and well-protected.” (See Doping Whistleblower Sues Russian Olympians and Their Oligarch Backer, an N.B.A. Owner, by Rebecca R. Ruiz, The New York Times, April 30, 2018.)

ICARUS was named Best Documentary at the 2018 Academy Awards® and was nominated for a BAFTA. The Directors Guild of America nominated Fogel for Best Director of a Documentary. The movie won the first-ever Special Jury Orwell Award at the 2017 Sundance Festival and the Audience Choice Award at Sundance London.

At the end of ICARUS, Fogel and his production team dedicated the film to whistleblowers, “who seek truth over consequences and to clean athletes everywhere who choose to play by the rules.”

Fogel encourages fraud examiners when pursuing evidence to “follow the story. And you don’t know where that story may or may not lead until you actually commit to following it and commit to going down that rabbit hole.

“The question is if you’re going to follow that lead. In my situation, I was willing to never back down.”

Dick Carozza, CFE, is editor-in-chief of Fraud Magazine. Contact him at dcarozza@ACFE.com.