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How cyber warfare could be final nail in coffin for a level playing field in international sports

If Vladimir Putin is hacked off at treatment of Russian athletes by sporting authorities, revenge is sure to follow

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 January, 2017, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 3:31pm

The art of blackmail has stood the test of time. It’s as old as mankind itself. These days, though, the level of sophistication can be quite breathtaking and few are more adept at it than Ray Donovan, the title character of the hit Showtime series. Played by Liev Schreiber with simmering intensity and chilling efficiency, Ray is a fixer by trade and the guy who makes problems disappear for affluent clients in modern-day Hollywood. But as good as Ray may be, it looks like he has met his match in Russian president Vladimir Putin. Both are fixers. The only difference is scale. Donovan is fixing situations for wealthy clients in Hollywood while enriching himself whereas Putin is fixing situations for the wealthy elite of an entire country while also considerably enriching himself. Like Schreiber, Putin plays his role with simmering intensity and chilling efficiency. There is no need for either to raise their voice when a mere look will do wonders. Action most definitely speaks louder than words.

This past week three US intelligence agencies, the FBI, CIA and NSA, declassified documents alleging that Putin personally oversaw a systematic hacking programme that sought to compromise the last US presidential election to ensure victory for Donald Trump. Again, they are merely allegations but the notion that Putin could somehow compromise a US election process that is already awash with billions of dollars from Super PACs and ravenous lobbyists is folly of the highest order. Putin didn’t create the vulnerabilities in US democracy, he just exploited them.

Among the myriad reasons listed by the agencies for the hacking was anger over perceived US involvement in the banning of Russian athletes for the 2016 Summer Olympics because of a government-sanctioned systematic doping regime. The suspension, handed down by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) based on information from the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), was a profound embarrassment for Putin and the implications could have a chilling effect on the world of international sport going forward. Almost on cue, two months after the announcement Wada confirmed a Russian cyber espionage group had illegally gained access to their confidential files which showed a number of prominent non-Russian athletes had actually received dispensation to use a variety of banned stimulants. The message was clear: If you come after us, you come after yourself. We know your secrets.

Another allegation by US intelligence agencies would surely have made Ray Donovan proud as well when it was revealed Russian agents had secretly taped Trump on a trip to Moscow in 2013 engaging in lewd and compromising acts. In essence, they have all the goods they need to ensure that the next president of the US tows the line for Papa Russia. But I’m not sure how salacious innuendos with verifiable video could doom Trump, considering he is hardly moving into the White House with a halo over his head. It’s the same for the sporting authorities Russia may be looking to blackmail. You don’t really need to hack these people to find out what skeletons are in their closet. All you have to do is open the closet door and they will simply come tumbling out.

Under investigation for its alleged cover-up in the Russian doping scandal as well as an extortion racket under its former president Lamine Diack, the IAAF is about as transparent as the air in Beijing. Its leader Sebastian Coe once said Diack was his spiritual leader and declined to appear at a British inquiry this week into doping in his sport. You don’t embarrass or expose these type of people because they have no shame and even less accountability.

The same obviously goes for Fifa, a group which wrote the book on blatant corruption before some recent setbacks. Still, in a little more than two years Russia will host the planet’s grandest sporting event the World Cup and there is no shortage of theories over how it may play out. It’s fair to speculate tournament and match officials could be placed in compromising positions by the host. It may not happen but under the new parameters of cyber warfare, there is no reason to believe sports and the matches themselves will be exempt. Anything and everything is possible now. Money is no longer the primary focus, fear is and when it comes to creating fear even Ray Donovan would admit he is a distant second to Vladimir Putin. Hail to the chief.