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.
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.
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 OK, 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.