Geopolitics and Sports: A Fiery Mix

Geopolitical uncertainties in regional relations threaten the long-term planning efforts of major sporting events.

2018 Winter Olympics

There are currently growing concerns about the heated rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea about the impact on the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  As of Nov. 16, organizers say they’ve hit just 41% of their sales target of 1.06 million tickets, with sales in South Korea even weaker than those by international tourists, according to a USA Today article.

In addition to the concerns about the uncertainties surrounding the actions of North Korea, Olympics spectators are balking at the long travel times from Seoul to Pyeongchang, the lack of accommodations at the various venues, and the fact that insurance companies have been unwilling to issue cancellations in the event of a disruption by North Korea.

The prospect of a nuclear confrontation has suppressed both sales and enthusiasm for the event that is aimed at bringing the world together.

2022 World Cup

Similarly, the upcoming 2022 FIFA-sponsored event to be held in Qatar is now subject of some consternation due to the recent blockade of Qatar by five Arab countries. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Egypt and the Maldives severed all political and economic relations with Qatar on June 5, 2017. They accused the country of backing extremist groups, a charge Qatar strongly denies.

Quoting from FIFA president Gianni Infantino at the kick-off ceremony of the mini-stadium project of the Thai Football Association.  President Infantino noted that “2022 FIFA World Cup, which will be held in Qatar after five years, will be a very important event for the Asian continent.” “The Asian continent is very important for the FIFA, especially after the continent has presented impressive examples both at the organisational level and at the results level,” said Infantino.

But a more sinister motive appears to be behind the blockade and recent allegations towards Qatar of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (believed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to be a terrorist organization) and the popular Arab world news organization Al Jazeera. A November 9th story from the Gulf Timespublished the news of a plot to manipulate currency and bond markets to cripple the Qatar economy and steal the 2022 World Cup by the UAE.

As noted by the authors Ryan Grim and Ben Walsh of the Intercept,  “Targeting a nation’s economy using financial manipulation would be a dramatic break from traditional norms of diplomacy and even warfare.”

They further note:

“One of the plan’s stated aims is forcing Qatar to share soccer’s 2022 World Cup, according to the outline. The strategy laid out in the document calls for using a public relations campaign to point the international soccer body FIFA to Qatar’s dwindling cash reserves, making a case that the small Gulf country can’t afford to build the necessary infrastructure.”

The Elixir of Sports for Easing Geopolitical Tensions

Sporting events are important for peace and can be useful touchstones for resolving regional geopolitical conflicts.

They can also reveal the worst in humanity.



Briefing for the Athletic Industry on the Fancy Bears Threat

The Fancy Bears hacks and dox releases this summer highlight the need for advanced planning briefing in the athletic industry.  The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships, the Football Association and FIFA were impacted by Fancy Bear actions.  In July prior to the IAAF World Championship in London, Fancy Bears released the Athlete Biological Passport data of numerous prominent track and field stars.  The data breach released personal and medical information in addition to notes of “likely doping” or “passport suspicious” for some individuals.

Aries Merritt and Mo Farah were among the victims. While the Football Association and FIFA breach three weeks ago released details of failed drug tests and therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for athletes, the disclosure claimed 25 participants that were allowed to use TUEs during the 2010 World Cup.  It also indicated 150 players had failed drug tests in 2015 including four UK athletes where one tested positive for ecstasy and three tested positive for cocaine.

The Legacy of the Fancy Bear WADA Hack

Fancy Bears has actively exposed doping in sports through hacks against the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and international organizations like the IAAF and FIFA.  They identified themselves a year ago as an international hack team that stands for fair play and clean sport.  At that time they were working under of guise of #OpOlympics to “enlighten” the public on how Olympic medal are won.  However, they have also participated in hacking Georgia’s government ministries prior to Russia’s 2008 army occupation, hacking the Democratic National Committee, targeting the CIA and the White House.  Enlighting, right.

The Fancy Bear hacking collective also leveraged the NSA tool “EternalBlue” to intensify attacks on hotel networks and target French Presidential candidate Macron in April.  Fancy Bears doping exposure endeavors intensified after WADA exposed systematic doping throughout the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) resulting in the suspension of RusAF athletes in IAAF events and the reallocation of Olympic medals to other teams and athletes. Fancy Bears has increased their activities and they are now threatening to uncover illicit behavior in athletics ahead of the 2018 Tokyo Games.

Preparing for the World Stage

Seasoned athletes maybe prepared for the press onslaught and actions required from a cyber breach or misinformation campaign however new athletes maybe ill prepared.  In addition to the laborious physical training, athletes would benefit from geopolitical and cyber awareness training.  Even if an athlete is mindful of political statements or opinions they perform on an international stage, as such, they or their loved ones, can be targeted for social engineering campaigns.  While organizations may fall victim to breaches, general awareness of threats and best practices for safe measure is a beneficial exercise.  The SportsISAO is uniquely positioned to assist the sports industry on cyber security issues from hardening, business continuity to advising on industry standards.

Benjamin Franklin said it best, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

By:  Yomphana Adams, CRI Threat Analyst
Cyber Resilience Institute
Date: September 13, 2017