In the last half of the 20th century, the leaders of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have pushed to elevate the Olympics above the realm of international politics. The games, according to those who made the argument, constituted a space beyond the squabbles among nations. But geopolitical realities meant that those lofty ideals often went unmet.
During the Cold War, debates raged over exactly who would represent East and West Germany or the two Chinas at the games, for example. After World War II, the Allied powers formed West Germany and the Soviets carved out East Germany, and both states sought IOC recognition as a symbol of their legitimacy. The same situation held for Communist China and nationalist Taiwan. The politics of the Cold War intruded on the Olympic ideal in other ways, as the quadrennial athletic competition attracted the interest of intelligence agencies of all stripes — a practice that continues today. Indeed, their efforts present some of the most obvious evidence of the inextricable link between the Olympic Games and geopolitics.
At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) established a fake laboratory to switch the drug-tainted urine of Russian athletes with clean samples. The FSB's presence at the Sochi Games was not without precedent. Philip Agee, a former CIA agent who leaked his employer's secrets in his 1975 book Inside the Company, showed that the CIA attended every iteration of the Olympics from 1952, the year the Soviet Union first participated, until 1968.
Cold War Precedent
What was the CIA doing at the Olympics? In the early days, the agents focused on two primary missions: encouraging athletes from the Eastern Bloc to defect, and spreading propaganda. Decades before Joseph Nye articulated the concept of soft power, the United States recognized the potential for a public relations coup if a star Soviet athlete opted to switch nationalities. As detailed in historian Toby Rider's Cold War Games, the CIA colluded with Sports Illustrated to help Hungarian athletes and officials defect to the United States after the Soviet invasion of Hungary prior to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. A total of 38 Hungarians took them up on that offer. However, due to the IOC rules on citizenship, the athletes were considered ineligible for competition as "stateless" people. While on the surface a successful mission from the standpoint of U.S. officials, the inability of these athletes to compete directly against their Soviet counterparts hampered the propaganda value of the defections.
The Olympics were not the only sporting event in which the CIA saw opportunity. In 1962, a team from the Soviet Union visited Stanford, Calif., for a track and field meet. The ostensible purpose of the event, part of a series of cultural exchanges between the nations since 1958, was to increase mutual understanding between rivals. But the CIA employed Latvian national Edgars Laipenieks, a coach at Denver University, to recruit a Soviet athlete at the event to act as an informant. As an acquaintance of famed Stanford Coach Payton Jordan, Laipenieks had access to the Soviet team. The young Latvian he recruited, whose name remains classified, served as the eyes and ears of the CIA when he returned to the Soviet Union. This, in turn, allowed American operatives to craft more informed (and thus more useful) propaganda initiatives.
At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, the CIA sent a team of Ukrainian emigres, led by suspected war criminal Mykola Lebed, to distribute CIA-produced literature promoting Ukrainian independence. To a limited extent, the effort proved successful. With the aid of pro-Ukrainian priests within the Vatican, the CIA's operatives handed the literature out to athletes, tourists and anyone else who would accept it. Yet there was a deterrent in Rome that the CIA had not considered. Soviet intelligence had prepared its contingent in advance. One CIA contact reported that the KGB was tracking the movements of any Soviet citizen at the event and asserted that every individual that he talked to was terrified. In addition to appraising the traveling contingent of the dangers of speaking to emigres, the Soviets held nightly information sessions in which the groups discussed who they met as well as the information that they received.
More than a half-century after the Rome Games, Ukraine re-emerged as an intelligence focus at an Olympic event. The Russian annexation of Crimea, which followed on the heels of the Sochi Games, inspired debates over President Vladimir Putin's true motives behind hosting the Olympics.
Some analysts linked the invasion to Putin's desire to re-establish Russia as a major world power. The Olympics served a complementary role in this regard. Specifically, Putin wanted gold-medal performances, given Russia's disastrous showing at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, where it finished sixth in the medal standings — well behind its usual standard. A widespread doping operation designed to give Russian athletes an illegal edge followed. The work of the FSB in Sochi reads like a scene from an Ian Fleming novel. Through a fake laboratory set up next to the drug-testing lab, the FSB swapped "dirty" urine samples handed in by Russian athletes for "clean" samples taken from the same athletes months prior. The bottles allegedly had been tamper-proof.
While it is clear that historically the CIA and the KGB used the Olympics to wage Cold War and that the FSB played an integral role at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the question remains: Why are the Olympics so important to those agencies? In some sense, it is deeply ironic that a movement so concerned with keeping politics at bay became a platform for covert action by intelligence agencies. Although convincing athletes to defect and distributing propaganda seems different than swapping drug-testing samples, the CIA and the FSB operated with a similar motivation: to promote one's country at the expense of others. In light of this history, it seems likely that national intelligence agencies will be on hand as the 2018 Winter Games commence in Pyeongchang, South Korea.