How One Whistleblower Led to Russia Being Banned From the Winter Olympics (Guest Column)

Dan Cogan - Getty - H 2017
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'Icarus' producer Dan Cogan details how his documentary on the country's sports doping program led to Russian athletes' recent banishment from the 2018 Games.

The International Olympic Committee announced Dec. 5 that Russia would be banned from competing in the 2018 Winter Games. Dan Cogan, a producer of the documentary Icarus, currently streaming on Netflix, recounts how he and his fellow filmmakers, who initially planned to make a first-person film about sports doping, instead found themselves harboring the man who blew the whistle on Russia's secret doping program.

The International Olympic Committee has banned Russia from participating in the 2018 Winter Games as a result of its secret, state-sponsored doping program, in which President Vladimir Putin himself was implicated. This is significant for the political leadership of a country that has always depended on the Olympics to show its strength, and even more significant because it is the result of the whistleblowing of one man, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab. It's also personally significant to me, because it has grown out of the making of a film, Icarus, which I produced.

The film did not begin with any such grand ambitions in mind. In July of 2015, first-time documentarian Bryan Fogel came to me with an unusual experiment in mind. Bryan was willing to put his body on the line to prove that doping in sports was much more widespread than anyone imagined. An amateur cyclist, he vowed to dope himself and then compete in a major international race and not get caught, proving that there is a giant hole in the testing system. It was an exciting, mischievous, trouble-making project that could have far-reaching impacts on sports — just the kind of film worth making.

We needed a doping expert — someone who could teach Bryan how to safely take the drugs, while successfully evading testing, which is how we met Dr. Rodchenkov. From Moscow, he had run the third-largest anti-doping laboratory in the world, developing new tests and protocols. We were thrilled when he agreed to help Bryan, even though we had no idea why he said yes. His job was to catch dopers, not help them. Before we could figure it all out, this puckish documentary had morphed into something much more consequential.

On Nov. 9, 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) published an official report placing Dr. Rodchenkov at the center of a massive scheme to dope athletes and defraud the Olympics. A few days later, he told us his life was in danger, and we immediately flew him to Los Angeles.

We set Dr. Rodchenkov up in a safe house and began a series of on-camera interviews. Slowly but surely, he opened up. He explained that he had been running an elaborate program of colossal proportions to dope hundreds of elite Russian athletes across dozens of sports and hide the results, and that the fraud reached a new level of brazenness in 2014 at Sochi. These Winter Olympics were really Putin’s Olympics – he had spent $50 billion to mount these games on Russian soil. As Dr. Rodchenkov put it, Putin wanted to show the world “who we are.”

Dr. Rodchenkov revealed to us that he worked with the FSB (the present-day incarnation of the Soviet-era KGB) to break into the system of urine collection bottles for drug testing so that Russian athletes could dope during the Olympics and have their dirty urine swapped for clean urine right under the noses of the world in Rodchenkov’s Sochi laboratory. The scam worked, and Russia won a record 13 Gold medals and made Olympic history.

We were no longer just making a film — we were now harboring one of Russia’s most wanted. Soon after Dr. Rodchenkov arrived in the U.S., his long-time colleague, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, was found dead in Moscow under highly suspicious circumstances. Nikita Kamayev’s death devastated Rodchenkov and shook the whole Icarus team. We were documentary filmmakers, how were we supposed to protect our subject from Vladimir Putin?

We wanted to bring Dr. Rodchenkov to the U.S. Department of Justice in hopes that they could protect him. We searched for a lawyer who could negotiate with the DOJ, no small feat when so many American law films do business in Russia and do not want to cross Putin. We found an immigration lawyer who could help him remain in this country, and then we had to confront questions about political asylum and his work as a cooperating witness. Might the DOJ want to charge him with crimes, deeply complicating his future? It was an extremely complex and intricate process.

Dr. Rodchenkov and our film team also felt it was crucial to tell his story to the public as soon as possible — we couldn't wait to finish the film. We introduced him to the editors of The New York Times, and the results appeared in a series of articles, starting with a front-page story on May 12, 2016. This led to a firestorm in the run-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, from which one-third of the Russian team was banned.

As I write, the Russian team has just been banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics. Vladimir Putin recently called for Dr. Rodchenkov’s extradition, while a top Russian Olympic official recently said Rodchenkov "should be shot for lying." The ban will no doubt escalate the threat to Dr. Rodchenkov. We are deeply concerned for his safety. This story will continue to unfold for a long time to come.