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Hidden hard drives and burner phones: How the ‘Icarus’ team is trying to protect an Olympic doping whistleblower

NEW YORK — Hard drives hidden around the country. Burner phones that couldn't be traced. A safe house in Los Angeles.

For the filmmakers behind "Icarus," a cloak-and-dagger story of Russian Olympic doping, the themes of a documentary have for the past two years become the story of their lives. The Russian government has been increasingly trying to undermine — or, they fear, even outright capture — the film's main character, the whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, prompting filmmakers to engage in improbable acts of high-stakes secrecy.  

Now, even as the Netflix-backed documentary seeks an Oscar via genteel events hosted by the likes of Rob Reiner, they are confronting their most fraught fight yet.  

With Russia facing a ban on official participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics, the "Icarus" filmmakers have been urgently beefing up security around Rodchenkov — hoping to stay a step ahead of a Kremlin that they suspect will get its hands on the chemist and thus stop him from testifying at a Swiss proceeding on Jan. 25 that could decide whether dozens of athletes will be permanently disqualified.

The filmmakers' actions, many of which are being described for the first time, show how narrow the border is between moviemaking and activism.

"We never thought we'd be in this position, trying to shelter a whistleblower and change the world of international sports," said Jim Swartz, co-founder of Impact Partners, which produced and financed the film. But "you hear the word 'Olympics' and it means something. And then what you see is these guys doing everything they can to sweep doping under the rug. We had to do something."

At stake is the fate of dozens of athletes, and some of the questions raised are: What is the proper punishment for Olympic cheating? Who should serve it? And how often should filmmakers be the ones doling it out?  

While shooting "Icarus," Rodchenkov described, on camera, how an anti-doping lab at the 2014 Sochi Games served as the place where drug-tainted urine of Russian athletes was swapped out for clean samples, via a network of underground tunnels. Rodchenkov knew this because, he said, he did the swapping. He also said he mixed cocktails of banned performance-enhancing drugs and fed them to athletes.

The allegations made by Rodchenkov, who has since fled to the United States, spawned the 2016 investigation known as the McLaren Report. It also led to other inquiries and ultimately prompted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to issue numerous bans — a formal one for the 2018 Games and lifetime bans for several dozen Russian athletes.  

Now those athletes are appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to be reinstated, possibly even for the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, next month. 

In response, Russian authorities have charged Rodchenkov as a drug trafficker and sought his extradition. Without his testimony — which lawyers are hoping he will be allowed to give by video link — U.S. experts say that the bans almost certainly would be overturned.

The Impact group — Swartz and fellow co-founders Dan Cogan and Geralyn Dreyfous, as well as "Icarus" director Bryan Fogel and Rodchenkov lawyer Jim Walden — have sought to protect the whistleblower so he can testify at the hearings. Around Christmas, they say, they learned from U.S. government sources of an increased threat to his life and hired additional security to bolster the government's efforts, using money from a nonprofit group they founded. 

Russia has denied allegations of widespread doping and said the accusations are part of a larger Western campaign to discredit the country. A press spokesman at the Russian Embassy in Washington did not comment for this article.

The "Icarus" team says it worries for the physical and legal safety of its star witness. 

Although Washington and Moscow do not have an extradition agreement, "Icarus" principals say they worry that the Trump administration's relationship with the Kremlin could lead to the United States accommodating the request. Neither the State Department nor the Justice Department would comment for this article, nor would CAS or the IOC. 

The "Icarus" team also fears that Russian agents could harm Rodchenkov on U.S. soil. Leonid Tyagachev, a former head of Russia's Olympic Committee, in November called for the whistleblower's execution, telling a Russian radio station: "Rodchenkov should be shot for lying, like Stalin would have done."

Walden says the risk of a targeted killing should not be underestimated. He cited the sudden and suspicious deaths of two other high-ranking Russian former anti-doping officials in the past two years. "No one expected them to die either," he said. "There's always a first. I don't want him to be the exception that proves the rule." 

A dark secret 

"Icarus" was not exactly designed as a flamethrower. Several years ago, the Los Angeles-based Fogel, known primarily for a stage comedy titled "Jewtopia," teamed up with New York-based nonfiction giant Impact for a lighthearted movie in which Fogel would attempt to become a better amateur cyclist through doping. Talking to people in the sports pharmaceutical community, the director was soon put in touch with the gregarious and affable Rodchenkov.

But it soon became clear that the chemist held a far darker and more consequential secret. While working as an anti-doping monitor in Russia, he told the filmmakers, he ran a Kremlin-ordered scheme that swapped out the unclean samples of dozens of athletes, particularly at the 2014 Sochi Games.

As he ultimately spilled these secrets on camera, Rodchenkov began fearing for his life. He soon received a tip from a Russian government friend that he was in danger. Fogel bought him a ticket so he could flee Russia.

In late 2015, Rodchenkov arrived in Los Angeles to meet the director with barely a piece of luggage. He was soon set up in a safe house in the city — an anonymous apartment, rented to Impact, that he did not leave. With the Rio Games approaching and the movie still shooting, though, the "Icarus" crew decided not to wait to go public. It went to the New York Times with Rodchenkov and his account. The May 2016 story landed like a grenade, prompting several commissions and dozens of bans. 

U.S. authorities placed Rodchenkov in the federal witness protection program shortly after, as they received intelligence of mounting Russian threats.

Finishing the movie that summer and fall then became a spy-like operation. In a series of actions Cogan describes with a mix of pride and worry, he and Fogel hid hard drives around the country backing up footage of Rodchenkov interviews; the editing room in Santa Monica and Impact's offices on the Brooklyn waterfront were not considered safe. Cogan bought burner phones for himself, Fogel and his team. The staff members were to use their usual phones for all other business and talk about "Icarus" only on the disposable devices. 

Impact then tried to secure an attorney for Rodchenkov. But no one, it seemed, wanted to risk losing Russian clients by taking him on. "Big firms all have offices or dealings in Moscow," Cogan said. "This was too risky for them." 

Then he met Walden. The New York lawyer had left a white-shoe firm several years earlier to start a boutique firm. Walden, who had gained some recognition in his home city fighting a prominent medical center's closure in Brooklyn, said he "didn't think for a second" about turning down Rodchenkov's case. "We probably lost business — in fact, I know we did," he said. "But you don't just do this job for the money." 

Fogel said that as the film neared completion, he was surprised by what he set in motion. "The real-world impact and the incredible danger Grigory began to face was startling in many, many ways," the director said. 

But the end of editing in late 2016 was only the beginning of the work.  

Under fire from the Kremlin

With Rodchenkov in witness protection, the Impact founders decided to take up the cause for him. Swartz helped found an organization, Fair Sport, which invites anonymous sources and promises them protection and subsidized legal aid. It also enlisted the involvement of such international-sports figures as the Norwegian speedskating gold medalist Johan Koss, who has since become an activist. 

The "Icarus" crew also began lobbying the IOC, which Rodchenkov did not think was moving quickly enough to punish Russia, recruiting national federations to exert pressure on the organization. "We had to put the IOC in a box so they dealt with the subject," Swartz said.

And they began paying for lawyers to help get together affidavits for Rodchenkov that would be used in various hearings. 

Meanwhile, the film was on its own rocket ride in 2017. Netflix bought the rights to "Icarus" at the Sundance Film Festival last January for an estimated $5 million, a whopping sum for a documentary. The dice roll paid off: "Icarus" has garnered warm reviews, and it is considered a leading documentary contender for an Academy Award.

But even as "Icarus" has basked in accolades, its subject has increasingly come under fire from the Kremlin. Last month, President Vladimir Putin suggested that U.S. authorities were chemically brainwashing Rodchenkov. "What are they doing with him there?" Putin said at his year-end news conference. "Are they giving him some kind of substances so that he says what's required?" 

The Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov in November called out Rodchenkov's "sponsors and those sheltering him," which may have been a reference to the "Icarus" filmmakers. 

The Kremlin's attempt to discredit Rodchenkov is more than a matter of image. Russia still hopes to march in the PyeongChang closing ceremonies — the IOC, to the chagrin of anti-doping activists, has left open that door — and wants as many athletes as possible to compete so it can match its pre-ban medal total of 33 from Sochi.

Experts caution that anti-doping authorities may face an uphill battle at the CAS hearing. "Lifetime bans will be problematic, in my opinion, and will be difficult for CAS to uphold," said Howard Jacobs, a Los Angeles-based lawyer. 

What's more, many neutral voices say that ordinary athletes shouldn't pay the price for a system they didn't create and had little say over.

Cogan says he knew that taking up Rodchenkov's cause and helping him leave Russia were unusual steps to take for a documentary subject. "But I felt strongly about him as a person, and I also thought from the first moment he was telling the truth." Like Fogel, he says he hasn't been able to communicate directly with Rodchenkov in months, relaying messages only through intermediaries. 

All of this post-production drama could provide rich fodder for a sequel. Fogel dismissed the notion, citing Rodchenkov's inaccessibility. But other "Icarus" principals were more coy; the legal and other battles, they note, would make a compelling saga. 

In the meantime, they say they are fighting for what Rodchenkov and "Icarus" began. 

"If Grigory isn't able to testify, the bans will be overturned," Swartz said, "and give carte blanche to anyone who wants to cheat in the future."