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  • OpEd: Welcome to the Brave New World of Cold War Sport


    By Michael Pirrie

    The politics and speculation surrounding the attempted murder of former Russia double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a crippling nerve agent in a quiet English cathedral town carry overtones of the Kremlin’s use of a dramatically different class of drugs – substances intended instead to bulletproof the performance of elite Russian athletes, if not enemy spies.
    Michael Pirrie

    The Skripal spy case comes at a time when the sports world is still struggling to respond collectively and confidently to Russia’s state-sanctioned doping program, which has become a Rubicon crossing in modern sport, with implications for the war on drugs and corruption in sport.

    The suspected state-sanctioned attack on the Skripals and Russia’s state-sanctioned doping program cover a sinister spectrum of covert chemical activity and conspiracy involving sport and new Cold War-like tactics – a spectrum that spans the use of fatal nerve agents designed to eliminate enemies of the state on one hand, and athletes armed with performance enhancing substances to eliminate opposition on the sports field, on the other.

    The explosive assassination attempt also follows shortly after an Olympic truce was brokered to ensure the safety and security of national delegations and teams attending the recent South Korean PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, staged in the shadows of the North’s much feared nuclear missiles.

    The incidents mark a new crossover of politics, security and black ops with sport, involving nuclear weapons, covert doping programs, and governments that see sport and the world differently, with national agendas and goals in conflict with long standing codes of international conduct on and off the sporting field.

    The UK Government Foreign Secretary and former Olympic Games Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has already referred to the possible withdrawal of England’s team from the Russia Football World Cup amid fears for the safety of team members and in protest at the attack on the Skripals.

    British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (Wikimedia Commons)
    This would mark the first strategic withdrawal from a major global sporting event by a leading sporting and industrial nation since 1984, when the Soviet Union led a 14-nation boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. That move was in response to the US led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.  

    British Prime Minister Theresa May has already confirmed the Royal Family will not represent England at the World Cup in Russia. While the ban on England’s participation at the football World Cup is not total at the moment, the widening diplomatic row involving Russia and the UK could further infiltrate world sport, with Johnson, Britain’s top international diplomat also comparing Russia’s hosting of the mega football event to Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympic Games used to promote Nazism.

    Although the exact motive behind Russia’s suspected nerve agent attack remains uncertain, some Russia observers believe that while the Skripals were the intended victims, the attack - on British soil and sovereignty - was targeted at the West more generally, and at the UK in particular, following a series of disputes with western governments and institutions allegedly involving covert military, political, cyber, and security interventions in the Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, US elections and other international zones of activity and influence, including sport, and especially Russia’s Olympic ban from the recent PyeongChang Winter Games.

    The Olympic ban came in response to Russia’s clandestine doping program, which was designed to bring glory to Russia at Olympic and world sporting events, regarded as key sectors relied on by the Kremlin to project Russian strength and influence abroad and back home to domestic audiences and voters.

    Instead, inquiries involving several high profile British international sporting leaders and administrators as well as North American and European investigators and media revealed an elaborate system of tampering and substitution of drug testing samples to hide widespread doping of Russian athletes.

    Russian athletes marched with Olympic flag in PyeongChang, but IOC ban was lifted days later (ATR)
    The findings precipitated the greatest crisis in Olympic and world sport since the Salt Lake City Olympic vote buying scandal, and culminated in Russia’s ban from last month’s PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, which was supported by athletes and sporting bodies and communities worldwide but provoked anger deep inside the Kremlin.

    With intelligence analysts tracing the conspiracy to kill the Skripals back to a Russia developed nerve agent, the attack also fits a pattern of recent sudden and unexpected deaths and illnesses that have befallen Russia critics, and which, analysts say, were also intended to silence others with sensitive insider knowledge from speaking out about possible illegal or banned activities in key government sectors, including banking, utilities, and sport.

    With the body count among Russia critics continuing to rise, fear of possible retribution has driven the whistle blowers responsible for exposing Russia’s doping programs into hiding amidst the spate of successful hits on critics at home and internationally.

    The Russian doping revelations demonstrated the great bravery of investigators, whistle blowers, investigators and new ‘sports spies,’ traditionally not included on international hit lists, while highlighting the urgent need to better protect and compensate such whistle blowers.

    The reliance on whistle blowers also highlights the lack of adequate checks and balances in sports systems, including national Olympic committees, international federations and world governing bodies to detect corruption in their own ranks and protect athletes, teams and officials from bullying, sexual abuse and other threats to personal and professional safety.

    With new doping cases and issues continuing to damage sport’s credibility, the fallout from Russia’s doping operation continues to haunt the IOC, WADA, national anti-doping bodies, and sports law tribunals.

    The controversial decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn IOC sanctions imposed on Russian athletes last month for suspected doping dating back at the Sochi 2014 Games in particular has exposed a system no longer fit for purpose and in need of urgent overhauling despite many reform efforts.

    The Russia doping scandal will also continue to haunt world sport, and in particular Russia’s own Football World Cup, with the recent Hitler Olympic Games comparison challenging the neutrality of sport and staging of major events in countries that act in ways that clash with the values of sport and wider international society and law.

    While calls to boycott the Russia World Cup began after reports of Russia’s hidden homemade doping channels were released, an international protest campaign is gaining momentum, with reports that Germany’s highly popular newspaper Bild recently sent reporters to show football players photographs of children crippled by bombing in Syria’s catastrophic internal war which has involved squadrons of Russia jet bombers.

    These protests are likely to gather more momentum following Johnson’s Hitler reference, raising difficult questions about whether sport can remain neutral in the rapidly changing geopolitical landscapes, or should help to improve conditions for communities in desperate situations through bans on sporting contact and related activities which played a key role in helping to dismantle apartheid in South Africa.

    These developments could also impact on the politics of future Olympic Games bids and hosting decisions for major international events if organizers are reluctant to take the Games to unstable world regions with unpopular governments.

    While the skillfully negotiated Olympic truce involving senior North and South Korean officials and leaders, IOC and international allies saved the PyeongChang Games, the nuclear risks that confronted the Olympic Games on the Korean peninsula could also cast a dark shadow over preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Games, depending on the outcome of upcoming talks between North Korea and the US.

    The nuclear charged PyeongChang Olympic Games, along with Russia’s state-sanctioned doping empire and related activities, possibly including the Skripal poisoning plot, highlight the potential vulnerability of sport in this new era of shifting balances in geopolitical power involving traditional and emerging military, economic and sporting nations that will reshape Olympic and world sport in the 21st century.

    Michael Pirrie is a London based international communications adviser specializing in major events and Olympic projects. Michael is also a commentator on Olympic and world sport, and has worked in senior communications positions for the Olympic Games in London and the wider Olympic Movement.

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