Social Science blog

04 January 2012

A new headache for the IOC.

Over the years the IOC has been faced with a number of nightmares concerning their elite athletes– from shamateurism to drug taking and gender ambiguity. These threats to the Games’ integrity have been dealt with in a number of ways with varying, but mostly satisfactory, degrees of success. The latest nightmare though – that of the possibility of bribery of athletes by betting syndicates – has caught quite a few people on the hop. How do you legislate for (or rather against) such a thing?

The issue of match fixing suddenly appeared on most people’s radar last year after three Pakistani cricketers were convicted for ‘spot’ fixing in a Test match against England in 2010. Evidence put before the court highlighted the illegal betting syndicates in the Far East, India and Pakistan which attempt to skew the outcome of sports matches in a variety of ways: by arranging for individual players to commit ‘faults’ like no balls, right up to the throwing of entire games. Unregulated and with large sums riding on the outcomes, they pose a huge problem because of the sophistication of their methods and the clandestine nature of their activities.

A big expose in the Sunday Times on New Year’s Day revealed the extent of the problem for Olympic sports: football, tennis, & handball have all been shown to be affected and there are strong suspicions about hockey. The claim is also made that syndicates are already preparing for the Games with plans which will potentially involve not only athletes but match officials as well. Olympics minister Hugh Robertson is reported as saying that “ Governments around the world need to put the necessary laws on their statute book that make…[match fixing]…illegal.”

As with the financial markets, the success of sporting events depends largely on confidence. No one would be interested in a ‘competition’ that had a prearranged outcome, and this is the reason sporting authorities come down heavily on cheats. The possibility of the match being fixed robs the whole event of its meaning and renders genuine achievements suspect. People quickly become disillusioned and sponsors want no part of it. That way lies complete disaster – for the Olympics and Paralympics in particular.

With this dire possibility in mind, the London 2012 authorities have set up a special task force composed of representatives from the Met, Interpol and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The task force will share information and monitor any unusual betting activity, and identify attempts to approach athletes by persons known to be linked to the syndicates. People will also be able to report any suspicious goings-on via an email hotline. The problem though - it seems to me - is that even more legislation and surveillance will be necessary at mega events, thereby giving ammunition to critics who are already accusing the Games of being too prescriptive and intrusive when it comes to domestic affairs.

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