Preserving the integrity of sport is no easy fix

The Australian Open commenced this week. In advance of the first morning session, Tennis Australia held a workshop on match-fixing at which Jack Anderson presented and got an insight into the efforts taken by a major sporting organisation to protect the integrity of a global sporting event against gambling scams.

The source of sport’s problems with match-fixing is often traced to the activities of criminal syndicates exploiting the massive unregulated betting markets of South East Asia.

The motivation for match-fixing by these gangs appears to be tied to money laundering.

In 2014, research by the University of Sorbonne suggested organised crime launders around €100 billion yearly through sport.

As a result, the betting markets on the Australian Open are closely monitored for unusual patterns. Integrity officers, usually ex-police, mingle among the players and their entourages watching for known gamblers and fixers.

They also scan the crowd for those using their smartphone in a manner which suggests that they are sending real-time information back to unregulated bookies to manipulate the odds offered on a game — a phenomenon known as courtsiding.

At its simplest, match-fixing is the rigging of an outcome of a sporting event usually for illicit gambling profit: If you know the result of a game in advance, you can make a killing on the betting markets.

Fixing the result of a game in a team sport can be difficult as you need buy-in from several team-mates.

Individual or so-called “episodic” sports — sports which have set-plays such as cricket and snooker — are different and can lend themselves to what is called spot-fixing. Spot-fixing is where an aspect of a game is rigged but not necessarily the outcome.

Preserving the integrity of sport is no easy fix

Tennis has had problems with players deliberately throwing sets or matches for match-fixing purposes.

This time last year a leading betting integrity body ESSA reported that tennis accounted for 79% of its suspicious betting alerts in 2016. Football was next on 12%.

The problem for tennis is not at the elite level but at the lower levels. In 2017, tennis’s global integrity unit received notification of 240 suspicious betting alerts — 71 emanated from the ATP Men’s Challenger Tour; 141 from the ITF Men’s Futures.

Mind you, and still somewhat surprising, nine matches at the Grand Slams raised betting alerts.

The problem at the Futures level, in particular, is that relative to the elite, players eke out a precarious, transient existence and thus are more susceptible to approaches by fixers, particularly through social media.

Expect some changes to be announced in 2018 both in the way these non-elite tennis tours are organised and in how prize money is distributed.

2017 was a bad year for match-fixing in Australian tennis. Five Australians were suspended for match-fixing. One of them was Oliver Anderson, a former Australian Open boys’ tennis champion.

The teenager was charged with criminal offences relating to match-fixing and specifically the throwing of the first set of a match at a Challenger tournament in 2016.

In the game, clips of which you can see online, Anderson loses the first set against a player ranked 900 places below him. Anderson went on to win the match easily, 4-6, 6-0, 6-2.

Anderson eventually pleaded guilty to the charges and no jail time was given but he awaits a lengthy suspension from the game. His career and prospects are in tatters.

It seems he was vulnerable because, due to repeat injuries, he became fearful about breaching the terms of a sponsorship contract.

Anderson was then preyed upon by others.

Whether those who, in effect, groomed him to commit the crime and who benefitted financially — Anderson admitted to the police that he was never paid for the fix — will ever be caught is, as is so often the case with match-fixing, unclear.

Vulnerable players, particularly players who have gambling debts (and this is something for the GAA to be watchful of) being approached by fixers is not a purely tennis phenomenon.

Last year, University of Limerick research involving 600 European athletes from various sports revealed 12% of those surveyed had participated in a fixed match.

Preserving the integrity of sport is no easy fix

Moreover, nearly 15% had been asked to fix a match within the last year.

The UL research also revealed 40% replied that club officials were most likely to instigate contact on match-fixing.

An interesting aspect of the FAI’s ongoing investigation into allegations of match-fixing at Athlone Town, which are being vigorously denied by the players and which may end up in the High Court this week, will focus on who exactly owned the club at the time.

Players and owners apart, criminal syndicates often target referees. Referees control the game but in many professional sports are the least paid person on the pitch. There is a long history of referee-led fixing in sport.

The most recent example came this week when a Fifa life ban was confirmed on Ghanaian referee, Joseph Lamptey, who, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) noted, made two intentionally wrong decisions in order to achieve a specific number of goals — called the Asia handicap in betting — in a World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Senegal in 2016.

Finally, there is general agreement that player education is key to combating match-fixing. Criminals need players to effect the fix on the field of play and if players are educated enough to know they should report such approaches, then the fix falls apart.

But there are also two conflicts of interest that sports bodies themselves must first address and not just the obvious one about accepting sponsorship from gambling companies.

First, can sports bodies explain why it is that in the UL survey over a third of athletes said they would not report any suspicions of fixing, mainly due to lack of trust and confidentiality?

Second, in the player education seminars that I have seen, the emphasis is on informing players as to the ethical implications of fixing a game, the legal consequences of being found guilty and the moral stigma that will attach thereafter to a fixer.

And yet, as I pointed out at the Tennis Australia match fixing seminar on Monday, how can all this be reconciled with the fact this year’s Australian Open was launched by Maria Sharapova, who recently served a 15-month doping ban?

Sometimes, in professional sport, you wonder if even integrity has a price?

Jack Anderson is Director of Sports Law Studies at the University of Melbourne and an Adjunct Prof at University of Limerick.


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