As Olympic training became more detailed, more scientific and more complicated, France created an agency in its sports ministry. Its nondescript name — Préparation 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 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 a 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.
Technology and intelligence
As the Games have grown in magnitude and in dollars, countries have turned to ever shrewder tactics, like technological investments in training and equipment, painstaking research on opponents, and outright espionage. When the Summer Games begin this week in London, many teams will have engaged in this new Olympic reality — the gamesmanship of the Games, as coaches and officials seize upon untapped resources often beyond the scope of rules.
“We realised that international competition was becoming more and more pronounced,” said Fabien Canu, the man known as the French James Bond, who was the French agency’s director from 2006 to 2010.
Using the internet
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 in part 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 Games 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 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 O.K., 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 in some circles 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.
Préparation Olympique et Paralympique, the French agency known as P.O.P., came about in 2005 after 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, or about $121,000, for a custom-built search engine designed by a company that specialises in economic intelligence software, P.O.P. began to track news reports, government documents, Web sites 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.
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 practised in some form, only under different names. Some called it innovation. Others called it research and development. The French labelled their efforts as surveillance, or intelligence. Canu has been quoted saying, “Sports espionage is the reality these days.”
What Canada did
Before Vancouver, British Columbia, hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010, Canada created an arm for research and innovation known as 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 programme labelled its programme the Secret Squirrel Club, and it produced a superbike made from components used in Formula One racing and the aerospace industry.
Canada created its Top Secret initiative as part of a larger programme, Own the Podium, in 2005. A sizable increase in financing, much of it from corporate sponsors keen on ballooning the host’s medal count, provided Top Secret with more than $2 million each year for five years leading into the Olympics. That went to 55 projects, and included about 18 institutes and three think tanks.
Dr. Jon Kolb, a director of sports science, medicine and innovation, Canada’s answer to Canu, led the programme. He said he could not quantify how many medals Top Secret ultimately produced. Its financing is now lower, its name changed, but Kolb and his colleagues 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.”
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 United States 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 did speak to the advantages such a course provided. “Massive” is how Herrera described it, noting how the American team built a replica track for Beijing, too, from drawings mostly, and won half of the six BMX medals.
Reports from Britain noted how the British track cyclists filmed Australian coaches who were filming their training sessions at a recent competition. “The espionage out here has reached such farcical levels that our lot are filming their lot filming our lot,” an article in The Daily Mail began.
Many of the involved parties declined to speak about espionage, past or present. A true spy never reveals his tricks. (Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris.) — New York Times News Service