Ireland vulnerable to match-fixing scourge

More than 12% of athletes have played in a fixed sporting event, according to research carried out at the University of Limerick, writes Larry Ryan.

And one of the report authors fears Ireland is vulnerable to corruption because our sports don’t have the same athlete supports found in other countries, while failure to act on corruption in sport will mean “viewership, spectatorship and participation are all at risk”, warned MEP Sean Kelly at the launch of the report yesterday.

Tadhg MacIntyre is a lecturer in physical education and sports sciences and has worked as a sports psychologist with Munster Rugby. He and UL colleague Deirdre O’Shea have produced the EU-funded Fix the Fixing: Proactive Quelling of Sports Events Manipulation research, which assessed responses from more than 600 sports people across six EU states — Ireland, United Kingdom, Austria, Greece, France and Cyprus.

Nearly 15% of respondents reported they had been asked to fix a match within the last year, with 12% confirming they had played in a fixed match. A further 15% suspected they may have been victims of a fix.

Of those who were approached to fix a match, 36% said they would not report any suspicions of fixing, mainly due to lack of trust and confidentiality. And 40% felt that club officials were most likely to initiate a fix.

MacIntyre was surprised by the scale of fixing reported.

“We were surprised that this was a pan-European problem. That it was high in Greece wasn’t a surprise, for example. We were at a conference in Greece two weeks ago that was gatecrashed by soccer hooligans from a particular club who were relegated because they were insolvent. Their argument was that they didn’t match-fix which is why they were insolvent.”

A breakdown of the report’s findings backs up this cultural discrepancy across EU states.

Some 9.7% of Irish respondents indicated their teammates would approve of match-fixing, compared with 34.1% in Greece. Mind you, that Irish figure looks worryingly high compared with 6.5% among UK replies and 5.9% from Austria.

“We are not immune to fixing,” McIntyre warned. “Just like doping it knows no borders. Betting, in particular, knows no borders.

“As we saw in the Athlone Town case — albeit there might be an appeal — two players have been banned for a year and the case is linked to an Asian betting market. That just tells you [there are no geographical barriers].

“We have an number of issues. From our focus groups, one of the factors athletes say would reduce match-fixing is better respect and better work conditions. That’s interesting; they are saying if you look after our wellbeing, you can reduce it.

“Our sports don’t have the same level of organisational structures and perhaps athlete well-being support that you might have in other countries.”

MacIntyre pointed to the cases of Michael Conlan and Steven Donnelly — both Irish boxers were sanctioned for betting on Olympic boxing events.

The Olympic Council of Ireland was also reprimanded for not having properly informed its athletes.

While he accepted the infringements were minor and there was no attempt to manipulate an event, MacIntyre believes the offences are indicative of a lack of education around betting.

“Michael Conlon, as a world champion, was betting on himself to lose. It’s an extraordinary lack of insight and understanding of himself as a role model. We need our star athletes to be cognisant people are looking up to them and looking at them to lead.

“There’s a real issue with the education level of players and athletes and coaches. It’s not good enough for an athlete to say they didn’t know it wasn’t ok to take a particular flu remedy, for example, because there is so much education in that area. But this is similar.

“In some sports awareness of the rules was virtually non-existent.”

The project has produced an online educational tool that sporting bodies can use to educate athletes.

In his experience working within rugby, McIntyre did find a strong awareness of
betting rules.

“I worked with Munster Rugby for two years. They knew well the rules. They understood them very clearly. That’s really important. The IRFU have done a huge amount of training with their referees, which includes sporting integrity training.

“If sport is to be different from business and other areas of life, we need people to stand up and demonstrate those values.”

Speaking at UL yesterday, MEP Seán Kelly warned of the consequences of failure in the fight against corruption.

“If we fail to act, sport viewership, spectatorship and participation are all at risk. In Ireland, we are passionate about watching sport, perhaps more than we love doing it, and people won’t watch sports if they perceive them to be fixed. It is not knowing
what will happen that makes sports attractive.”

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