Strategic Deception and the Sporting World

How the UNODC and IOC have created a movement that purports to fight sports corruption but actually puts it in reverse.

”The West are wishful thinkers, we will give them what they want to think…”
Feliks Dzerzhinsky – Founder of the Soviet Spy Services

Back in the day, things were not going well for the Russian Bolsheviks. It was 1919, they were nominally in power in the newly established, Soviet Russia, but really were losing a land war to their bitter enemies – the White Russians. The “Whites” were formidable opponents. In the field, their armies controlled vast swathes of Russian territory. They were financially backed by much of the offshore wealth of the former Tsarist regime. They were supported militarily by the British, French and Americans. The Soviets had a poor, starving population and army, little money and no international support. So what did the Bolsheviks do? They did exactly what the Russian government is doing now in the fight for ‘sports integrity’- they created their own opponents.

Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the then-head of the Bolshevik intelligence services, was a brilliant spy and a far better strategist than virtually any of his counterparts in Western intelligence agencies. He realized that the Bolsheviks could never hope to beat their enemies. So he established Operation Trust (Oперация Трест) – an international agency ostensibly mandated to fight against the Bolsheviks. Dzerzhinsky however, staffed it with his own spies and attracted a host of hapless well-wishers who genuinely thought it was a credible anti-Bolshevik organization. It was a brilliant piece of strategic deception, a piece of intellectual jiu jitsu, in the Bolsheviks turned their own enemies energy and resources against themselves.
It is difficult to overstate the success of Operation Trust. It utterly bamboozled and divided the opponents of the Bolsheviks. Many White Russian emigrés supported it, as did the nascent spy agencies of the British such as MI6 (James Bond’s purported organization). In a series of covert operations, Operation Trust leaders were able to arrange the successful kidnapping and killing of two key leaders of the White Russian army. Operation Trust’s masterstroke was to convince the British as well as elements of the White army – not to attack the weakened Soviet regime because, they said, it would be better if Russians themselves overthrew it. Nothing was done and the Bolsheviks remained in power for another sixty years.

They Are Doing It Again

Which brings us to the October 28 conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, where many anti-sports corruption people met under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In true Soviet style – speeches were made, clichés were exchanged and a press release (https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2019/October/unodc-and-ioc-launch-guide-to-help-detect-wrongdoing-in-sport.html) was issued. They all called for a universal fight against corruption and proclaimed a desire to promote the values of pure and positive sport. The President of the IOC Thomas Bach declared: “We are a community which shares a common goal to protect competitions from manipulation and from related corruption.”

How could anyone be against such an event?

Ummmm…well actually…. In my opinion, almost the whole thing is a set up – an operation brilliantly manufactured by Feliks Dzerzhinsky’s successors in some obscure hallway in a government building in Moscow. You see, almost all of UNODC’s finances to fight sport corruption are provided by the Russian government.

A quick explanation as to how the United Nations works. It is not a vast monolith of bureaucracy with black helicopters flying around the globe to quickly and efficiently do its bidding. Rather, the UN is a sprawling, financially-broke organization that staggers from situation to situation, held together by a patchy network of funding and dedicated work from many of its staff.The way outside agencies raise money from the UN is to go to a series of meetings with ‘donor nations’ – United States, Russia, China, etc – who then decide to fund their activities. Thus it is representatives of national governments – as well as United Nations staff – who often decide where their money should go.

In the case of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, their interest in sports doping coincided with the revelations of widespread, state-sponsored doping in Russia by the courageous whistleblowers Vitaly and Yulia Stepanovs. So, just as the world was discovering the full extent of corruption, the Russian government – completely coincidentally, of course – decided to give millions of dollars to a purported independent, international agency to help fight against sports corruption. It may also have helped that the Head of the UNODC, Yury Fedotov, was one of Vladimir Putin’s top diplomats.

As the full extent of Russian government complicity in doping their athletes became apparent, the UNODC swung into action against doping in sport.

Or did they…?

How to Hinder the Fight Against Sports Corruption While Cheering It On

”An institutional conspiracy existed across summer and winter sports athletes who participated with Russian officials within the Ministry of Sport and its infrastructure, such as the RUSADA, CSP and the Moscow Laboratory, along with the FSB for the purposes of manipulating doping controls. The summer and winter sports athletes were not acting individually but within an organised infrastructure…”
Richard McLaren, WADA Investigation of Sochi Allegations, December 9, 2016

Upon close inspection, the UNODC’s work against sports corruption features some disturbing emphases. First, there is their insistence on ‘integrity’ and ‘ethics’ in sport. Good, well-meaning ideas, surely? Actually, no, it is a deeply toxic focus. For it assigns all the blame onto individual athletes. It promotes the idea that the problem of doping and fixing lies with wayward young people who – unable to make the right ethical choices for themselves – are lured into cheating and corrupting the sports that have given them so much.

This provides a great scapegoat for the officials who run these sports, but it ignores the reality of the widespread, state-sponsored doping that was effectively obligatory in many Russian sports. For the most part, Russian athletes had little choice in whether to take the drugs or not. You wanted to be part of the program? You took the drugs.

The Russian-sponsored UNODC’s campaign not only takes the focus off the creation of state-sanctioned systems of doping, but it does far more. It promotes the wonderful-sounding cliché, ‘sharing of information between stakeholders’. This all sounds innocent and laudable, but who are these ‘stakeholders’ with whom sports people are supposed to share their information?

The best, recent investigation against sports corruption was carried out by the Canadian lawyer, Richard McLaren. His findings – that the Russian government had created a deliberate system of doping for many of their athletes – angered a massive number of people in the sports community. In fact, many of them – like the IOC – were furious not with the Russians, but with McLaren for having confirmed the proof of this widespread sporting fraud. If these ‘stakeholders’ had been consulted before McLaren issued his report, they never would have allowed it to go ahead.

Capturing the Whistleblowers

The crown jewel of this potential modern-day Operation Trust in the sporting world is its attempt to control the information of any future whistle-blowers. The exposure of the entire state-sponsored doping system in Russia was thanks to the information provided by the Stepanovs. When Vitaly Stepanov discovered that his own bosses at a ‘stakeholder’ entity – the Russian anti-doping agency (RUSADA)- were not just downplaying the existence of doping, but were actually leading it, he turned – confidentially – to another international ‘stakeholder’ – the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). When that organization failed to act upon his extraordinary findings, he turned to the German journalist, Hajo Seppelt.

However, what would have happened to Stepanov under the regime proposed by the UNODC influenced sports organizations now?” As he went through each of these ‘stakeholders’, they could – if they took the clichés uttered by the IOC and UNODC seriously – share his information and identity with other ‘stakeholders’. This means that in the future, the IOC and the Russian-sponsored UNODC will have the power to suppress any problematic sports whistleblower before they can cause any difficulties.

To be clear, this modern-day Operation Trust does not mean that all or even many of the UNODC officials and their misguided fellow-travellers in the sports integrity movement are in anyway corrupt. In my opinion, they have fallen innocently, for a beautifully played strategic deception.

All in all, Feliks Dzerzhinsky would be very proud. Anyone else who cares about the integrity of sport should be very worried.

(see Hajo Seppelt, the German journalist who broke the story, superb documentaries here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iu9B-ty9JCY)

The joint IOC and UNODC report on whistleblowers – https://www.unodc.org/documents/corruption/Publications/2019/19-09580_Reporting_Mechanisms_in_Sport_ebook.pdf

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