Brian O’Connor’s Tipping Point: Legislative structures urgently needed to tackle integrity issues

Now’s the time to put in place procedures which allow Sports Governing Bodies to effectively protect sports they are there to govern


Football officials in Thailand are trying to solve that country’s match-fixing problems by getting referees to swear an oath before an Emerald Buddha. Any western temptation to scoff should be tempered by the reality that it’s as meaningful a move as most anything being done about corruption by many administrators closer to home. And in Ireland we know all about trusting relics and hoping for the best.

My problem with shock-horror headlines about match-fixing used to revolve around the mundane consideration of ‘getting on’. Even the rawest of gamblers quickly realises that getting someone to take your bet is never a problem but getting paid can be.

And stories about mysterious syndicates in a vast amorphous underworld known as “illegal Asian betting markets” always have a perhaps understandable shortage of detail, which in turn allows a surfeit of easy stereotypes about inscrutable oriental gangsters arriving at the door kung-fu style to break your thumbs if you’re late coughing up.

But eventually too many provide too much too regularly to ignore the dangers of how sport is so open to carve-ups. The Qatari-based International Centre for Sport Security estimates $5 billion was gambled on the Germany-Argentina World Cup final alone. Only $1.25 million of it they reckon was legal.

These are mind-boggling sums, the sort that makes the few thousand quid it might take to turn a young, greedy and impressionable athlete seem even more piddling. To suggest there isn’t a fundamental danger to sporting integrity when such money is floating around the hazy ethical vacuum between performer and bookmaker is to be wilfully naive. Not everyone has a price, but it’s ludicrous to operate from a basis that everyone doesn’t.

Those embroiled in trying to tease out a workable way for sport and gambling to uneasily coexist point to a current perfect-storm reality where an explosion of online gambling has been infiltrated by organised crime networks operating gleefully underneath a tinted ceiling of, at best, official incomprehension.

Altering that requires a lot, but perhaps most of all, it requires political willingness to take the matter seriously. Unfortunately political will in this country is too often reactive, fire-fighting once the flames have already got a good hold. But in this case, the timing could hardly be better.

Ireland’s new betting legislation is still being worked on. Focus on it to date has centred on entirely predictable debates about tax rates and the nuts and bolts of taxing legal off-shore betting firms. But now is surely the time to put in place procedures which allow Sports Governing Bodies to effectively protect the integrity of the sports they are there to govern.

Comfy consensus

It’s not just in Ireland where a comfy consensus appears to exist in terms of presumption that corruption in sport is a ‘Nimby’ problem; an ‘over there’ issue that doesn’t really impact ‘over here’. And it is true there have been only comparatively minor headlines in Ireland in terms of match-fixing, although it’s worth pointing out that an absence of headlines is hardly an accurate gauge of what might actually be going on.

But the reality of the modern digital gambling world is that ‘over there’ is capable of influencing ‘over here’ in the millisecond it takes to click on a cursor.

Maybe Ireland really is still an oasis of gambling integrity. And maybe it isn’t. But it takes a particularly comfy consensus to assume that sport on this benighted rock can continue to be immune from perfidious influences eager for a profitable result. So, for once, what about taking an initiative early, try to anticipate before getting reduced to reactive panic; at least try to jar the stable door a bit before the horse craps all over sporting credibility.

By definition, pristine purity when it comes to illegal betting is impossible. But credibility demands that measures be taken where possible, and, crucially, are seen to be taken, in order to preserve a public confidence that can be disposed towards believing the worst.

Preserving integrity

SGB’s in Ireland have to switch on to their latent self-interest in preserving integrity, and there’s quite a task involved in convincing a lot of them that what happens elsewhere can potentially impact on their back yard. But the capacity to effectively investigate has first of all to be put in place by legislators.

What’s important here is a big picture appreciation of how important preserving integrity is, something which, for instance, should negate any Data Protection obstacles that might be put up in terms of SGB’s accessing records in order to investigate concerns they have about possible corrupt practises.

Legislatively, if someone has to be licensed with a body in order to participate, it should hardly be a big-ask for licensees to provide documentation as requested under a code of conduct that’s part of any new gambling control bill.

Nor should it have to be a biggie for bookmakers to be required to liaise closely and quickly with SGB’s if suspicious betting patterns emerge. That is already required in the UK, but not here, where the instinctive response is to reach for the police. However, some farcical race-fixing trials in the UK have highlighted how out of their depth the police can be when it comes to investigating the nuances of sports corruption.

The police should be a last resort, not the first, and now is the time to be seen to put legislative structures in place for sports bodies to effectively step up to this threat. There’s no point talking afterwards, or praying.

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