In bid for Olympic edge, espionage is fair game

So closely guarded were the hosts secrets that the Beijing games became known as the spy games

In bid for Olympic edge, espionage is fair game

As Olympic training became more detailed, more scientific and more complicated, France created an agency within its sports ministry. Its nondescript name – Preparation Olympique et Paralympique – masked a more ambitious purpose: to boost medal counts through athletic surveillance, as much Spy Games as Olympic Games, under the direction of a man whom competitors called the French James Bond.

But France is not the only nation looking for an Olympic edge through stealth. Someone from the United States’ BMX cycling team surreptitiously rode the competition course in London for this summer’s Olympic Games with a three-dimensional mapping device, specifics of which officials declined to reveal, so the Americans could build and train on an exact replica of the Olympic track.

And USA sailing opportunistically snatched up property near the Olympic competition site in Weymouth, England, to build a training base in enemy territory to study weather and current conditions before the Games.

As the magnitude of the Games has grown larger, the money greater, countries have turned to ever shrewder tactics, ranging from technological investments in training and equipment to painstaking research on opponents to outright espionage. When the Summer Games begin this week in London, many of the teams present will have engaged in this new Olympic reality – the gamesmanship of the Games, as coaches and officials seize on untapped resources often beyond the scope of established rules.

“We realised that international competition was becoming more and more pronounced,” said Fabien Canu, the man known as the French James Bond who served as the French agency’s director from 2006 to 2010. It was Canu who pioneered the use of technology and intelligence gathering to enhance the traditional training methods of Olympic athletes.

“If we continued our little artisanal operation, which was sometimes wonderful, it wouldn’t be good enough,” he said. So he used the Internet and athletes to look for advances in techniques and technologies used by the competition. Among the intelligence his agency picked up: cryotherapy, a recovery technique in which athletes are subjected to low temperatures, was used by Australian rowers.
Revitalised by its reconnaissance, France seized 41 medals at the Beijing Games in 2008, and not, Canu said, “by chance.” In rowing, where the arrangement of a boat’s rigging can affect a crew’s time, everyone pays close attention to the opponents’ equipment.

Before Peter Cipollone won gold in rowing at the 2004 Athens Olympics for the United States, he coached. As a young assistant, he took his cues from other coaches. This included trips at night to the marina, where he examined the opponents’ boats to find any competitive edge, logging measurements in notebooks no one ever saw. “You might see a Brit, an Aussie and a Kiwi doing the same thing,” he said. “If you run into them, it’s OK, because we all speak English. We’re all sort of on the same side. Like, ‘Just having a quick look.”’

“There’s no law against it,” Cipollone added. “It’s considered bad form to get busted.” In recent years, increasingly advanced examples have surfaced, as if ripped from the pages of spy novels.

In luge, athletes talked of how they blocked their sleds at starting lines when opposing coaches tried to sneak peeks. The British Olympic Association claimed that two of its databases had been hacked into in late 2007. That same year, Chinese police officers raided weather monitoring equipment used by the British sailing team.

In Beijing, so closely guarded were the hosts’ secrets that the 2008 Summer Games became known as the Spy Games. That started in early 2008, when China sequestered its top athletes at the national sports training centre, a compound guarded by paramilitary and Beijing municipal police 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We are now entering a period of silence,” Li Yongbo, the badminton coach, told reporters then.

Preparation Olympique et Paralympique, the French agency known as POP, resulted in 2005 when Paris lost its bid for the 2012 Games to London. Canu said he found an ‘extraordinary tool,’ with a ‘phenomenal richness’ in the most obvious place of all, the Internet. His group set out to harness the Web to gather otherwise unseen information about the competition.

Spending upward of 100,000 euros, or about $121,000, for a custom-built search engine designed by a company that specialises in economic intelligence software, POP began to track news reports, government documents, websites and archives in various countries. France employed two full-time ‘watchers’ to search for and organise the data by country and then by sport. Such an operation, while legal, would have been unheard of – not to mention impossible – a mere 20 years ago.

Systematic debriefings

The French agency also taught individual sports federations to perform systematic debriefings of trainers and coaches upon returning from international competitions. Canu saw all of this as an evolution of more traditional training – run, jump, lift, rest – something all the elite countries practiced in some form, only under different names. Some called it innovation. Others called it research and development. The French labeled their efforts as surveillance, or intelligence. Canu has been quoted as saying, “Sports espionage is the reality these days.”

Before Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010, Canada created an arm for research and innovation dubbed Top Secret, and everyone involved signed nondisclosure agreements, engineers included, lest their intelligence end up in the hands of the competition. The wildly successful British track-cycling program labeled its program the Secret Squirrel Club, and it produced a superbike made from components used in Formula One racing and the aerospace industry.

Dr Jon Kolb, director of sports science, medicine and innovation, Canada’s answer to Canu, directed the programme. He said he could not quantify how many medals Top Secret ultimately produced. But obviously the program helped. Its funding is now lower, its name changed, but Kolb and company are already pointed toward the Olympics in 2014 and 2016.

“London is way in my rearview mirror,” he said while at an airport, on his way to a research summit in Europe. “We’ve already got projects for Rio in the works. I can’t tell you what they are, of course. But if you’re working on London now, you’re way too late.”

As the London Games approached, the United States BMX team performed its reconnaissance at a test event in London – without consent of the hosts. According to the national team coach James Herrera, “we had guys on the ground, taking video, 3D-, engineering-type images. So we knew how many feet it was going to be from the base of the ramp to the first obstacle, how high, how far.”

But Olympic officials changed the course in January. The US team flew the same builder back to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., and altered its replica course accordingly. Officials declined to provide details but would speak to the advantages such a course provided. “Massive” is how Herrera described it, noting how the US team built a replica track for Beijing, too, off drawings mostly, and won half of the six BMX medals.

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