Saturday 22 July 2017

Potential for gambling fraud just a wager away

Criminal betting syndicates pose a real threat to Irish sport, says Jack Anderson

At a recent meeting of world sports federations, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, proclaimed that gambling-related corruption and not drug abuse is now the biggest integrity threat to sport.

This season's Champions League has already been affected by allegations of match-fixing. Last month, Turkey's Football Federation had to withdraw national champions Fenerbahce from the competition because of an ongoing investigation into the top-flight of its football league.

In May, the authorities in Finland launched a major criminal investigation into allegations that Singaporean gamblers had bribed footballers to throw matches. The Finnish example is interesting from an Irish perspective because it appears that the league was targeted for two reasons.

First, player wages are modest and thus the idea was that individuals might be more susceptible to being bribed, particularly in matches towards the end of the season between teams in the middle of the table and with little left to play for. Second, the Finnish league runs over the summer and thus provides a year-round football betting market for criminal betting syndicates in the Far East.

Betting scams are not confined to sports with an international dimension. This season Australian Rules officials have had to react to multiple allegations that team-mates were placing bets on who might score the first goal in a match.

In Australian rugby league, there have been numerous arrests this year in an investigation into a conspiracy alleging that a player had agreed to give away an early penalty in order to facilitate a betting plunge on the opposition scoring in the first play of the game.

The problem has also gone beyond sport. Interpol and other law enforcement agencies have begun to investigate the online sports betting industry.

Their primary concern is that unregulated, online sports betting platforms, again located mainly in the Far East, might be facilitating large-scale money laundering. The offshore, largely anonymous nature of this unlicensed industry makes it very difficult to trace the flow of money.

Specific to sport, Interpol has noted problems associated with in-play, spot and spread betting. They have highlighted examples where players have been targeted by criminal syndicates to do something specific during a game, which will not affect the end result (such as throwing a no ball in cricket) but may be used to facilitate a gamble on betting exchanges.

The analogy is to short-selling and insider information on the stock exchange. It is of note that the criminal charges that three Pakistan cricketers will face in a London criminal court next month, resulting from spot-fixing allegations during the Fourth Test against England at Lord's in August 2010, are based on economic conspiracy and fraud.

To the credit of its participants, there is no evidence of a systemic threat to Irish sport. Nevertheless, as recent revelations by this newspaper into greyhound racing illustrate, there is a constant need to be vigilant. Moreover, domestic soccer, both North and South, should be attentive to what is happening in Finland, as should the GAA and IRFU to the current player betting conspiracies in Australian sport.

Also of note are recent comments by Dr Fiona Wheldon, head of the addiction treatment unit at the Rutland Centre in Dublin, on the notable increase in men between the ages of 18-24 seeking help for online gambling addiction.

So what can be done to combat this threat? International best practice is based on a threefold approach of prevention, investigation and enforcement.

Many sports now have dedicated player education programmes outlining the accompanying dangers of gambling both in terms of individual abuse and the misuse of privileged team information.

International sport has seen much closer co-operation between sports bodies and online betting operators in order to provide information and early warning on irreg-

-ular betting patterns. This is something which the leading regulated betting operators, including all of the top Irish firms, have been more than willing to do. For instance, a very sophisticated early warning system was in place for last year's FIFA World Cup.

Third, there are calls for lengthy mandatory suspensions for those participants who have been found to engage in betting scams.

In order to co-ordinate this response, the IOC is considering a World Anti-Corruption Agency along similar lines to that of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

That is for the future. For now, and returning to home, it must be reiterated that this is not a distant threat confined to elite, international sport.

Anywhere where there is a market for betting on an Irish sport, there is a potential threat to the integrity of that sport.

Jack Anderson lectures in sports law at Queen's University, Belfast

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