By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
This week a Russian group hacked into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) athlete database and released the private medical records of three leading American athletes: Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Simone Biles. The documents revealed that all three athletes had received medical exemptions to use banned drugs during competition. This comes following the ban of many Russian athletes from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics due to systematic state-sponsored doping.
Policymakers and academics tend to think of cyber warfare as an issue of national security. Cyber terrorists hack into defense and intelligence targets and use the information to increase their security vis-à-vis targeted organizations. Prominent American targets have included the Pentagon, the State Department and the Department of Defense. Although this is a relatively new field of scholarship, it is termed cyber-security and is studied in reference to theories of terrorism and technology security. However, the targeting of a 19 year-old 4’9” phenomenal athlete can hardly be classified as an issue of national security.
How does Russia benefit from targeting these athletes? First, the medical records support an age-old Russian narrative that the system is rigged against Russia. According to this logic, when Russian athletes failed doping tests, it became a worldwide scandal and led to the banning of the majority of the Russian team. When American athletes take banned substances, they are given exemptions by WADA, allowed to compete, and win. We know very little about the process of exemptions, and there is no suggestion that these athletes did anything wrong, but that matters little to the Russian hackers. In Russia, the victimization narrative is supported by many examples: since the end of the Cold War the West has moved to expand its influence countries that were traditionally in Russia’s sphere of influence, like Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. This was done with complete disregard to Russia’s interests and security concerns in the region. Other minor examples include the lack of international outcry over the Russian plane downed in Egypt compared to the response to terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. These things cause outrage in Russia and real sense of grievance.
Second, the records also promote the idea that the United States is hypocritical. Many Russians think that while the US presents itself as a liberal democratic country, it is actually no different than Russia. The average person on the street in Russia would likely tell you that Russia is a democracy, certainly as much as the United States. Of course, Russia has little to no political opposition and a lack of free media, but in the United States capital and political power are intertwined and the turnover rate in Congress is extremely low. A common view is that while Russia may limit certain individual rights, the United States also does this in regards to certain vulnerable domestic and international populations. Similarly, while it is true that Russian athletes dope, so does everyone else, including Americans. According to the Russian view, Americans should get off their high horse in their dealings with Russia.
Finally, consider the images of Simone Biles flipping through the air in the Rio Olympics, her Wheaties box and Serena Williams, with her beautiful athletic form winning dozens of international championships. This is the image that America wants to portray to the world. It is powerful, multi-racial and promotes gender equality. This is exactly the image that Russia wants to tarnish. In general, sports are an instrument of soft power. During the Soviet period, Russian gymnasts were marketed as a sign of Soviet femininity and power, and they won. Larisa Latynina was the most decorated Olympian for 48 years, until her record was broken by Michael Phelps in 2012. Through their athletes, Soviet Union wanted to project normality and success to the Western world. This aspect of soft power should not be taken lightly. States devote significant resources to their sports programs. Of course, one reason for this is health and other benefits to youth, but many of the more advanced programs are designed to create national winners. The United States had an enormously successful 2016 Olympics: the US was first in the medal table with 121 medals overall, 46 of them gold, far ahead of the rest of the pack. In contrast, Russia’s rump team had 56 medals total, 19 of them gold. This new attack is an attempt to even the score.
There is no evidence of a connection between the Russian hackers and the Kremlin. However, the group, Fancy Bear (!), has been tied to the G.R.U., Russian military intelligence. In any case, the cyber attack solidifies strong Russian political narratives both domestically and abroad. This is a great example of why the connection between cyber-security and soft-power should receive more attention, especially in the scholarly community.