The BuzzFeed News-BBC reports unearthing serious fraud in professional tennis and the desultory approach the authorities took in dealing with it have jolted the sport, and its first major of the year, the Australian Open.
Subsequently, more players have been inquired, and more have revealed being approached by potential match-fixers at one time or the other. The repercussions of the reports, however, shouldn’t be restricted to tennis.
The Supreme Court-appointed committee assigned to look into corruption in the labyrinthine world of cricket administration in India, headed by Justice (Retd) RM Lodha, in its report has, among others, called for the need to legalise, and monitor, betting in India.
The idea is, by legalising and installing in place a framework to monitor, flag and investigate any suspicious activity, instances of match-fixing, if any, can be caught earlier. Monday’s tennis revelations prove the Committee was right.
It may be a conundrum to some; by legalising betting aren’t we encouraging match-fixers? Shouldn’t we be enforcing a blanket ban, instead? The key, however, is to differentiate betting and match-fixing. Match-fixers are not a betting company’s best friend, instead it is the opposite.
What a fixer essentially does is to bet on an outcome, say in favour of (or against) a player with whom a deal has been struck, and cash in at the opportune moment. To benefit the most, he/she, however, has to pick a player on whom the odds are heavily stacked against, if the bet is for his victory, or the other way, if it is for the loss. The bookie, in other words, has to devise a method to cheat the system and earn the amount, which the bookmaker, i.e. the booking firm, would like to keep for themselves.
Therein lays the foundation for the Committee’s suggestion. For a bookmaker, catching a match-fixer is not about ethics, but business; culprits harm their revenue.
Which is why, as we find out from the BuzzFeed News article, some of the most effective investigation teams are those set up by the bookmakers. In contrast, the anti-corruption teams set up by sport bodies have ethics as its beating heart, at least that is the façade.
A case in point
A major portion of Monday’s tennis story pertains to the August 2, 2007, match between Nikolay Davydenko and his Argentine opponent Martin Vassallo Arguello, a clear underdog then ranked 87 places below the Russian.
The odds bookmakers issued too suggested the same; it was in favour of the former. In the morning of the match, however, huge amount of money began to flow in, betting for a Vassallo Arguello victory, from a selected few accounts. It was strange.
The match, however, began on predictable path, Davydenko taking the lead. With that more money flowed in, betting on his victory. With the odds even more skewed, the suspicious accounts which wagered for the Argentine’s win channelled more money in the direction.
Betfair, the British betting firm who had been monitoring the unusual pattern, flagged a tennis official. As it turned out, Davydenko, citing injury, retired from the match, though Betfair immediately declared all bets void.
Though the players involved, were later cleared of any charges, a decision which the report questions, it was not tennis’ internal team who flagged the match, but the bookmakers. The report further says, such instances were repeated since then, but alleges the tennis authorities, in particular their internal anti-corruption unit, did not do enough.
Like any proposal, however, there are caveats to this. If India is to legalise betting, the authorities must ensure it is not monopolised by a single firm, or even olygopolised, though the latter is more difficult than said. Sport authorities too should play an active role to ensure they have the wherewithal to, or collaborate with the bookmakers to, monitor the betting patterns.