‘If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.’ Excellent advice for a CIA recruit but, in this case, it comes from basketball legend Michael Jordan.
It turns out athletes and spies have rather a lot in common, including the need for strength, stamina, and the courage to blow past their limits. So suit up. The Great Game is about to begin.
Sterling Hayden worked on a schooner at age 16 and sailed around the world many times. He was a decorated Marine Corps officer and agent for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) - the precursor to the CIA - during World War II, sailing supplies from Italy to partisans in Yugoslavia and establishing aircrew rescue teams in enemy-occupied territory. While at the annual Fisherman’s Race in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a magazine photographer snapped his picture, prompting Paramount Pictures to call offering a screen test. The 6’5” athlete starred in many films including as an Irish-American policeman in The Godfather (1972) and as an alcoholic novelist in The Long Goodbye (1973).
New Jersey’s Dave Sime was considered the greatest all-around athlete on the planet in the 1950s. He turned down a New York Giants’ offer in favor of studying at Duke University, where he set track records for the 100 yards, 220 yards, and the low hurdles. The Detroit Lions drafted him to play football but he turned that down to go to medical school, which he attended after the 1960 Olympics. During the Games in Rome, Sime was involved in a CIA plot called Operation Aerodynamics. The plan was to convince Soviet athletes to defect, with Sime as the CIA go-between. Unfortunately for the Agency, none took the bait. Sime bagged a silver medal for the 100-meter dash and enjoyed a long career as an ophthalmologist.
Gold-medal-winning pole vaulter Don Bragg was also recruiting athletes for the CIA, according to Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, a Soviet long jumper at the 1960 Games. Ter-Ovanesyan, who spoke English, said he was approached by Bragg and two other Americans (Dave Sime and javelin-thrower Al Cantello) who spoke about how much they loved the freedom in the US. They invited him to supper but a soldier was waiting in the restaurant so the Soviet athlete said he spoke vaguely then left. Cantello later worked for the US Marine Corps. Bragg, the medal-winning pole vaulter, lost out on a chance to play Tarzan in the movies because of injuries. He and his wife ran a summer camp and he worked as a college athletic director.
Fencer Jerzy Pawlowski was a charismatic Polish Army major, lawyer, and - with five gold medals - possibly the greatest fencer of all time. In the mid-1970s he was sentenced to 25 years for spying for an unnamed NATO country but freed in a prisoner exchange after 10 years. When brought to Germany’s Glienicke Bridge - the so-called Bridge of Spies - for the exchange, he refused to cross saying he was a Polish patriot. Truth and Life magazine revealed that Pawlowski had spied for the state against his teammates starting in 1955. He revealed which athletes might defect and who supported Israel in the Middle East war - allegations that proved more damaging than the original charges. He died aged 73.
Morris ‘Moe’ Berg has been described as ‘the strangest man to ever play baseball’. The Princeton grad spoke at least 10 languages, including Japanese and German. He traveled to Japan in 1934 as a catcher - part of an all-star team that included two of baseball’s biggest stars, Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig - and returned with home movies used to plan the 1942 Tokyo air raids. After his baseball career, Berg worked as an OSS spy. He was sent to German-occupied Norway to gather intelligence about a plant built for Nazi atomic-power experiments. Berg is the only US spy to have a baseball card on display at the CIA’s Langley HQ.
Basketball superstar and 6”7’ international man of mystery Dennis Rodman regularly visits one of the most dangerous countries on earth, North Korea, to meet up with dictator Kim Jong-un. During one visit ‘The Worm’, as he is known, gave a North Korean government minister a copy of the 1987 book Trump: The Art of the Deal. Rodman also offered support at a Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim. So is Rodman a new breed of bad boy CIA spy? MuckRock came up empty-handed with its Freedom of Information request asking the Agency to supply its Rodman files: “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the requested documents.”
No. 1-ranked US tennis star Alice Marble dominated the game in the late 1930s, winning 18 Grand Slam titles. After she miscarried and learned of her husband’s death - his plane was shot down over Germany in WWII - Marble spied for the US. In her 1991 autobiography, Courting Danger, she wrote: “I felt I had nothing left to lose but my life, and at that time I didn’t care about living.” Marble’s mission was to seduce a former lover, a Swiss banker with access to Nazi financial data. She was shot in the back by a Nazi operative. The mission ended but Marble lived for another 45 years.
Russia’s Vladislav Tretiak - one of the greatest hockey goaltenders of his generation - spied for Russian and Soviet intelligence, according to Nest of Spies, written by Canadian Security Intelligence Service veteran Michel Juneau-Katsuya and investigative reporter Fabrice de Pierrebourg. They claim Tretiak was an ‘international talent-spotter’ for the KGB and its successor, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, during visits to Canada to play hockey. Tretiak declined to comment when contacted by the Vancouver Sun. He is now head of Russia’s Ice Hockey Federation and a member of the Russian parliament.
Violette Morris was a French weightlifting champion recruited by the Sicherheitsdienst, a wing of Nazi Germany’s infamous SS. Morris gave Germany partial plans of the Maginot Line - a line of concrete fortifications and weapon installations built by France to deter a German invasion - and schematics of the French army’s tank, the Somua S35. Morris was sentenced to death in absentia and gunned down by members of a French resistance group on a country road in 1944. The unclaimed body was buried in a communal grave.
US coxswain Peter Cipollone won his ‘third-time lucky’ gold medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004 but a bit of spying helped his chances as well. As a young assistant coach, Cipollone visited marinas at night to examine opponents’ boats. He’d log measurements in a notebook and sometimes bumped into British, Australian, and New Zealand competitors doing the same. Sports spying has turned more high-tech since then, however. The British Olympic Association claims two of its databases were hacked in 2007 and Chinese police officers raided weather monitoring equipment used by the British sailing team. The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games were referred to by some as the ‘Spy Games’.