It seems fitting that it all went down in a former Eastern Bloc capital.
The surprise is these practitioners of the cloak-and-dagger art of sabotage are involved in short-track speed skating, not geopolitics.
On the final day of the world championships in Warsaw in March of 2011, the Canadian men’s squad was readying for a 5,000-metre relay that would decide the team title.
Former Olympic gold medalist and world champion Olivier Jean toed the starting line and, at the crack of the gun, launched himself down the ice.
“In the first lap I realized right away that I couldn’t skate, that one of my blades was broken. At the time we couldn’t really explain why, we had a few doubts that maybe there had been sabotage,” Jean told reporters on Thursday.
Canada finished last in the race, and ended up with bronze.
Now it can be revealed: Jean’s race was intentionally derailed because of equipment tampering by American skater Simon Cho, a bronze medalist at the Vancouver 2010 Games.
Cho alleges in documents filed with a U.S. arbitration panel that he was put up to it by recently suspended U.S. short-track coach Jae Su Chun, who is facing dismissal because of apparent ill treatment of his charges.
The best part? Jae used to be an assistant coach for Canada, and Jean credits him with helping him develop into an Olympic champion.
Somewhere, John le Carré is nodding approvingly.
“I always had a good relationship with [Jae] , I think he brought a lot to my skating when he was in Montreal,” Jean said, “and even after he left, we kept in touch. But I haven’t talked to him since the 2011 championships.”
As far as whodunits go, this one wasn’t exactly the proverbial dead body in a locked room; the Canadians shared a dressing room with the Americans at the event, so when they started wondering if maybe there was some skulduggery involved – skate blades are notoriously easy to damage – the suspect pool was limited.
According to the arbitration documents, which were first brought to light by the Chicago Tribune, the 21-year-old Cho admitted to a teammate on the flight home from Warsaw that he had done the scurrilous deed.
Jean, who won relay gold in at the 2010 Olympics, is known as a combustible sort, but when he was informed that Cho was copping to fiddling with his skates, he said “I actually found it funny.”
“You never want to think that this could happen, we all like to think we have the cleanest possible sport, sure it’s disappointing to find out my doubts were founded, but you can’t erase the past,” he said. “I just want to win races, I’m not going to waste energy worrying about .”
He’s also not going to let his skates out of sight – the national team now makes a point of having a staff member in the skate room at all times.