Tuesday 25 October 2016

Tennis betting scams are 'financial doping'

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Jim Cogan cartoon
Jim Cogan cartoon

Ah, it's our old friend, "unusual betting patterns".

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In August 2007, in the second round of the Orange Prokom Open in Sopot, a seaside resort in Poland, there was a tennis match. And in the course of this tennis match, Betfair noted what appeared to be unusual betting patterns.

So unusual, in fact, that initially Betfair refused to pay out on the winner. A full independent investigation was mounted by the tennis authorities which cleared the players of any wrong-doing.

It was reported that Betfair took about $7m on the result of this match, but that does not concern us here. For us the one outstanding, almost overwhelming insight to be gleaned here came from the news that $7m is reportedly 10 times the usual volume of business on such an event.

Which means that Betfair would not be at all surprised to see $700,000 being wagered on the result of a tennis match in the second round of a small tournament in Poland.

That's 700 grand on one match, on one website.

Let us pause...

And let us pause again to consider the fact that I first wrote those opening paragraphs in 2008 in a book called Free Money, about the phenomenon of online gambling.

Last week, almost a decade after that strange day in Poland, we learned through the BBC and BuzzFeed that the investigations which were triggered by these "unusual betting patterns" have found that indeed a lot of unsavoury stuff has been going on in the game of tennis, players at all levels being offered money by bad men to fix matches and the like.

But this is not really a tennis story - it was reported as a tennis story all week, but really it is a story about gambling and its astonishing power, the way it has consumed not just a multitude of vulnerable individuals, but entire sports such as tennis which many people wouldn't associate with betting at all.

For a long time, most of us had been under the impression that tennis is mainly about Roger Federer and Andy Murray, about Wimbledon or the US Open or the Australian Open that is going on at the moment - but in truth it is not about such singular figures or such prestigious events.

It is about fifth-rate games in places you never heard of, it is about the fact that from early in the morning till late at night, somewhere in this godforsaken world of online punting, there is a tennis match in progress, and those who need it badly enough can bet on it.

Indeed it gives us a perfect picture of this alternative universe which the gambling corporations have created, one which is hardly known at all to the general public, or to much of the media it seems, but which is known intimately to the aficionados and the addicts.

Tennis still puts Federer and Murray front and centre, like magnificent Formula One cars in the showroom, but the real merchandise is parked out the back, and at last they're admitting that some of it is very dodgy indeed, something that the tormented punters would long have suspected - one more time, that was 700 grand, rising occasionally to seven million, on one match, on one website, in the second round of a small tournament in Poland.

And that was 2007.

So it has taken a fair while for the tennis authorities to tell us that they may have a wee bit of a problem here, and Andy Murray himself was not alone last week in finding it "a bit strange" that the Australian Open now has an "official betting partner", in William Hill.

But again, this is not just a tennis story, it is the story we have been telling in these pages for a long time now, about the insidious takeover of so many sports by the betting corporations.

And the word "takeover" is no exaggeration here, when you consider that you might be watching a football match, for example, in which both teams are wearing a bookie's logo, in a competition which has an "official betting partner", on a TV station which is heavily funded by bookies' advertising, and which may even allow you to bet on the match by pressing the red button.

Frankly, what self-respecting Asian betting syndicate would not be taking an interest in such proceedings?

One-against-one sports such as tennis, snooker or darts may be easily fixed, but really there is no sport on earth any more, which is not also a betting medium, with all the potential for personal and institutional corruption which is inherent in that - we are hearing much these days about even junior Gaelic football matches in which punters can "get involved".

Tennis, incidentally, also has a doping problem.

But there has been an awareness of this for a long time, enough at least to ensure that the Australian Open has no "official doping partner".

Even with all that is known about match-fixing, which is a form of financial doping, gambling is still viewed as just part of the game.

Not the most wholesome part of it perhaps, but essentially a matter of personal choice for those who wish to partake, one that must be tolerated in the spirit of free enterprise.

But increasingly it is not just part of the game.

It is the game.

Sunday Independent

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