In the late 1950s the greatest all-round athlete on the planet was a college kid called Dave Sime, from Fair Lawn, New Jersey. After high school he knocked back a $65,000 offer to join Major League Baseball’s New York Giants so he could go to Duke, where he played centre field and led the league’s batting averages. While he was there he took up track and field, and set world records over 100 yards, 220 yards and the low hurdles. He also played American football as wide receiver, and did it so well that the Detroit Lions drafted him after he graduated. Sime turned them down too, because he wanted to go to medical school, which he planned to do right after he competed at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
And Sime had a secret. He also worked for the CIA.
Some of the details of Sime’s time with the agency have been around for a while. He spoke about it with the writer David Maraniss, and when Sime died in 2016 it made a line midway through his New York Times obituary. But more has come out as the CIA has continued to declassify its files, and the US academic Austin Duckworth has uncovered one of the strangest little sports stories of the 20th century. Sime was a bit-part player in a CIA plot to subvert the 1960 Olympic Games. So were a Ukrainian assassin, a cabal of Vatican clergymen, a Soviet long jumper, and George Orwell. It all unfolds in the CIA archives, under the heading Operation Aerodynamic.
Aerodynamic was a larger programme, designed to develop anti-Soviet resistance in Ukraine. It had two aims: “the encouragement in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of new and existing anti-Soviet, anti-Communist, Ukrainian nationalist sentiments”, and “the gathering of intelligence on the Soviet Ukraine and the USSR as a whole to satisfy United States needs”. It was run by a group of Ukrainian émigrés all codenamed AECASSOWARY, each with their own asset number. AECASSOWARY/2 was a man named Mikola Lebed.
Lebed was a Ukrainian nationalist. In 1934 he had helped plan the assassination of the Polish interior minister Bronislaw Pieracki. He was caught, tried, and sentenced to life in prison, but escaped in September 1939, during the German invasion. During the war, Lebed led a guerrilla army which fought both against the Nazis, and with them against the Soviets. He was later accused of massacring Polish citizens, too. The CIA described him as a “well-known sadist”, but helped him emigrate to the US, where it set him up as the head of the non-profit Prolog Research Corporation, which produced, published, and distributed anti-Soviet literature in Ukraine.
Aerodynamic operatives had been at the Melbourne Games in 1956, where they had distributed their literature among Soviet athletes and fans. At Rome in 1960, they were part of a more ambitious plan. The CIA wanted to persuade Ukrainian athletes in the Soviet team to defect to the west. Planning started in 1959 and Lebed used his contact in the Vatican, a bishop named Ivan Buchko, to help organise things on the ground. Buchko promised to organise a congress of “enslaved nations” and have “two Ukrainian Catholic priests circulate in civilian dress for the purpose of making contacts with Soviets”. His aide, a former SS member named Orest Kuprynets, helped arrange accommodation for Lebed’s team.
The CIA had already picked out some possible defectors during an international athletics meeting in Philadelphia in July 1959. The Soviets sent 59 athletes, and Lebed’s men mingled among them, reporting back on meetings with Ukrainians on the team, such as the shot-putter Tamara Press, the pole vaulter Igor Petrenko and the long jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan. Of these, Ter-Ovanesyan seemed the promising target.
Which is where Sime came in. The CIA had also recruited him and another US athlete, the javelin thrower Al Cantello, to act as go-betweens with the Soviet athletes in Rome. There Ter-Ovanesyan talked to Cantello about defecting. The archives show that the American took Ter-Ovanesyan for a first meeting with a CIA agent, where they were shadowed by a team of six CIA men in three cars to make sure that the KGB was not trailing them.
Sime recalled that his own CIA handler asked him to develop a relationship with Ter-Ovanesyan. He took him out for dinner. Ter-Ovanesyan was curious, but spoke about how well he was treated at home. The government gave him an apartment, a car and a job, and had promised him more if he won a medal. Sime was unsure what else the US could offer, except for “freedom” and perhaps a job in California, near the “movie stars and beautiful people”. Sime said there was another American who wanted to meet him, a CIA agent who was using the name Mr Wolf. “He was kind of slimy,” Sime told Maraniss. “I wouldn’t trust the son of a bitch as far as I could throw him.”
Ter-Ovanesyan agreed to meet Wolf so long as Sime came with him. He was scared, he said, and felt sure he was being watched by the KGB.
Lebed’s efforts to infiltrate the Soviet team were being hindered by the KGB, too. Around Rome, a series of elaborate cat-and-mouse games were under way. The CIA was sure that the Soviets were sending out “bait” targets for Lebed’s agents, who were being trailed by cameramen. Still, over the two and a half weeks of the Olympics, Lebed’s team held 155 conversations with Soviet athletes, journalists, and tourists.
Some were brief, such as the exchange with the great gymnast Larisa Latynina, who was asked why Ukrainians did not have their own Olympic team. “That’s not up to me,” she said. Or the pole vaulter Petrenko, who complained he had been reprimanded by the KGB for talking to émigrés.
They had more success with the journalists, such as the sports editor of Radianska Ukrainia (it was apparently a very dull propaganda sheet, the editor’s wife told the agent, which “gave the impression Ukrainians were mainly interested in hogs and cows”). He was persuaded to take a pamphlet called Friendship, Peace, and Freedom. He promised he would pass it on but when he saw the agent again soon afterwards, the editor complained the pamphlet was “purely counter-revolutionary” and asked: “Do you know what would become of me if anybody had taken it from me and read it?”
By the time Ter-Ovanesyan and Sime met again, the situation had changed. Ter-Ovanesyan had won a bronze in the long jump. Sime had a medal too, a silver. He had been beaten in the final of the 100m after he stumbled out of the blocks. Dinner was going well. Until Mr Wolf arrived. “Here comes this guy, I say: ‘Mr Wolf, this is my friend …’ He says: ‘Yeah yeah,’ and he starts immediately, he doesn’t even talk to me or my wife, he goes right up to Igor and starts talking to him in dialect,” Sime told Maraniss. “I can see Igor panic, really panic.” Wolf asked Sime to leave so he could talk to Ter-Ovanesyan alone. Ter-Ovanesyan refused, and left too. “I’m scared,” he told Sime on the way out.
“That was it,” Sime said. “The CIA blew it.”
So did Lebed. All the CIA seems to have collected from his operation were a bunch of home addresses in Ukraine, and over the next few days it sent out books and articles, including copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Sime and Ter-Ovanesyan met once more, when the CIA arranged to fly Sime up to Madison Square Garden for an indoor track meet in 1963. “Igor, how are you?” Sime asked him. “Nice to see you, David,” Ter-Ovanesyan replied. “I can’t talk to you any more.” They never spoke again.
Ter-Ovanesyan never defected. He became an athletics coach, and Sime a successful ophthalmologist. Aerodynamic folded in the 1980s, the last relics of its operation in Rome presumably being a few faded copies of Animal Farm gathering dust on bookshelves somewhere in Ukraine.
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