How to Survive an International Sports Integrity Conference

You ain’t in Kansas anymore Dorothy.

Back in the day, international sports integrity conferences – like Play the Game, happening right now in Colorado Springs – were jovial affairs where independent journalists, saddened whistle-blowers and beleaguered sports officials could meet, chat, drink and sometimes dance.

Now, everything has changed.

Sports are battle grounds of geopolitical soft power.

Hard power is the idea that you can conquer another country with tanks, planes and lots of death. Soft power is the idea that you can achieve the same effect, with much less money, by conquering the minds of the population of another country. There are all forms of soft power – education programs – where one country takes the brightest minds of another country and educates them on scholarships in their country. The students return more ready to the bidding of the country of their education. There are cultural programs – films, tv programs and exhibitions – that are also effective forms of soft power.

And there is sport.

Sport is probably the best way of achieving international soft power. The sight of your athletes – beautiful and strong – on top of the podium while the world listens to your anthem is an extraordinarily effective way of convincing others of the supremacy of your system.

During the Cold War – purportedly between Capitalism (United States) and Communism (Russia) – the Olympics were transformed into proxy wars of soft power. However, in the last fifteen years, a new set of soft power players in sport have entered the space.

Qatar Enters the Game

Qatar is the most notable of the new actors. It is a small country, impossible to defend militarily, that has poured billions of dollars into sports, partly in an effort to increase their soft power stature.

Because so much of the Qatari efforts have been shrouded in controversy and allegations of corruption – sports integrity has now moved to the front and center of the international battles for soft power supremacy.

Thanks, in part, to the extraordinarily talented, now deceased Mike Lee – who was a mixture of a modern-day Cardinal Richelieu and P.T. Barnum – Qatar decided to lead the world conversation in sports integrity. They established a ‘sports integrity’ organization. They helped fund academics to write papers focusing on ethics in sports – rather then systems of corruption. They encouraged journalists to examine sports integrity in every other country in the world, except Qatar.

This is chutzpa at an Olympian level. Consider that the Qatari involvement in sports are the center of a range of massive controversies – from allegations of bribery to, according to Amnesty International and labour organizations, the human trafficking of hundreds-of-thousands of workers.

The AI report (September 2019) – Qatar: All Work, No Pay: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde22/0793/2019/en/

The idea was not that the Qatari sponsored people would lie or distort the truth. Rather they could help focus discussions of sports integrity into areas away from troublesome questions of Qatar’s own record.

John le Carre meets Chariots of Fire

It is also not as if the Russians, Americans and Chinese ever left the proxy geopolitical war of sports competition.

Thus sports integrity conferences are no longer jolly affairs of wonderful sociability but John le Carre meets ‘Chariots of Fire’ like events.

September 2016, I was giving a speech in Lausanne to a joint council meeting of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and members from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The meeting hall was full of officials and athletes from around the world. Meanwhile back in our hotel rooms, two agents of the Russian secret service were breaking in and compromising lap-tops and mobile phones.

See: Le Monde’s reporting on the affair at:
https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2019/04/08/a-geneve-les-grandes-oreilles-de-moscou_5447115_3210.html

International sports integrity meetings are a perfect opportunity for effective spy craft. If you are an espionage agent, your targets are all in one place. You know the schedule of the meetings. You know the location of the meetings. You know which hotel your target is staying. And you know approximately how much time you have for your operation.

Heck! According to the Football Leaks project, operatives of the Qatari anti-corruption in sports organization even hosted a conference on ‘sports integrity’. While the delegates were in the conference, the agents allegedly broke into the hotel room of one of their guests to compromise his lap-top computer.

See Mediapart’s story at: https://www.mediapart.fr/en/journal/international/251118/how-qatar-used-anti-corruption-organisation-spy-its-rivals

Nor are you safe if you go to one of these conference and carry your lap-top and mobile phone with you at all times. Russian agents were caught in the Netherlands with a car-load of electronic surveillance system near a similar international meeting. They simply parked their car near the conference hotel, tapped into the Wifi system, and were able to monitor all e-mails and hack into the delegates computers.

See the Guardian Story: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/04/how-russian-spies-bungled-cyber-attack-on-weapons-watchdog

To be fair, I once spoke to source who claimed that British Intelligence had done the same thing at a big international economic forum. MI6 had bought out a coffee shop next to the conference centre. They found a superb Italian barista and lowered the price of his amazing coffee. Many of the delegates flocked to the coffee shop, where, when they logged on to the Wifi, the British spies promptly hacked their phones and computers.

Buckle your seat-belt Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye

If you are a delegate at an international sports integrity conference like Play the Game – don’t be a fool. Carry your lap-top around with you at all times. Don’t log on to the hotel wifi. It may be extremely cautious, but you aren’t living in Kansas anymore.

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For a good overview of some of the espionage work in this area, also see the BBC story which alleges Russian spying on both the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the world football organization FIFA.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45746837

To see Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQLNS3HWfCM

To see The Matrix quote – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-JJuHpfN5g

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