Is gambling a bigger threat to sport than drugs?

Is gambling a bigger threat to sport than drugs?

Match-fixing and doping scandals have rocked the sports world recently, but which issue poses the greatest threat to sports integrity?

La Trobe Professor of Practice (Sports Management) and sports anti-doping lawyer Catherine Ordway says, because of the standardised and harmonised approach to anti-doping, she would have argued match-fixing was the greater problem. The Russian Olympic team doping crisis, however, suggests both issues might be an equal threat but for different reasons.

As part of our Bold Thinking Series, Catherine will join Professor Russell Hoye, Paul Marsh and Nick McKenzie to discuss the paradox of gambling in sporting organisations and the broader integrity issue around cheating in sport.

Ahead of the event on August 25, we spoke to Catherine to learn more.

How does gambling undermine the integrity of sport?

The important thing to say straight up is that gambling in and of itself is not creating integrity issues for sport. Whether or not you think gambling is a problem for society is a bigger question, but what we’re really talking about is the challenge of match-fixing and gambling-related fixing.

The concern for law enforcement agencies around the world is the enormous amounts of money being transferred through gambling on sport through unregulated markets.

Where it’s unregulated, or very poorly regulated, law enforcement agencies and sports operators can’t see whether or not there are changes to the betting markets. Unusual betting patterns are used as an indicator to determine whether or not fixing might be happening in a match.

An example in Australia happened recently involving then NRL player, Ryan Tandy.  The regulators were tipped off when they saw a large increase in betting relating to pretty unlikely scenario arising out of the first conversion try. That’s the kind of information law enforcement and sports regulators want but can’t get because of the prevalence of unregulated and poorly regulated markets.

What’s the current approach to regulated gambling?

Unlike anti-doping, where we have the World Anti-Doping Code, national governments do not have a harmonised approach internationally in how they deal with gambling. In Australia, we have a ten-year maximum jail term for match-fixing, but in some other countries, there are no sanctions at all.

In ‘black-market’ countries, like India, Thailand and Vietnam, gambling is entirely banned, which means it’s totally underground. Governments in some countries have indicated their unwillingness to act on match-fixing threats because, by definition, gambling doesn’t exist in their country because it’s banned.

In other countries, like the Philippines, sports gambling is poorly regulated. Called ‘grey-markets’, in these countries there are legal gambling operators in place, but nobody really pays attention to what they’re doing or how they’re operating. Those differences pose an enormous threat to sport.

Let’s discuss the latest doping scandal with the Russian Olympic team and how that’s also threatening integrity.

What we’re seeing with the Russian Olympic team is very alarming. In a sense, it’s going back to the East German days where we saw state sanctioned doping programs, which is something we didn’t think we’d ever see again.

We now have the World Anti-Doping Agency, and more than 200 countries and all of the Olympic sports are signatories to the World Anti-Doping Code. There are countries around the world which are extremely supportive and compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code, like Australia. They have national anti-doping organisations, good education programs for athletes, and good cooperation agreements with law enforcements, customs and therapeutic goods administrations in their country.

In other countries, and Russia is not alone in this, we have seen state sanctioned doping programs where athletes are in some sense compelled to participate in a doping regime.

What are some of the implications around the International Olympic Committee’s decision in disciplining the Russian Olympic team?

My issue with the IOC’s decision not to follow the World Anti-Doping Agency call for a blanket ban on Russia is the distinction the IOC is making between state sanctioned doping and other political interference.  The IOC suspended the Kuwaiti Committee in 2015 for, what the IOC said was, undue government interference and their athletes will not be competing in Rio.

Nobody is publicly calling out on behalf of Kuwaiti athletes to say those individuals should be considered on a case-by-case.  These athletes are innocent parties and should be allowed to compete at the Rio Olympic Games.

Yet, when the World Anti-Doping Agency demonstrated government interference with doping Russian athletes in order to enable them to cheat, the International Olympic committee said in effect: ‘we can’t ban the Russians Olympic Team because we need to look at the rights of the athlete and have a balanced approached based on advice from the International Federations.’

Do you think this decision is linked with the fact the Russian athletes are such force and have such a strong history of world champion athletes?

Russia is a sporting super power, no doubt.  The Kuwaiti Olympic Committee is small. They haven’t had a very big presence on the Olympic stage, and they haven’t won a lot of events or medals so will not have a lot of political influence within the Olympic family.  The IOC can make a stand with them and no-one is really going to make a fuss about it.

The Russian team is huge and they’re very successful. They’re up in the top five on the medal tally every Games. When a massive competitor, like Russia, is knocked out, it obviously puts everyone else in a stronger position, particularly when funding agreements are based on key performance indicators of being in the top five or top ten etc.

I understand the IOC is seeking to protect the Olympic brand and have the ‘best’ athletes available at Rio. What is difficult for me to understand is the inequitable treatment, using the Russian and Kuwaiti teams as examples.

What will audiences get out of coming along to the Bold Thinking event?

I hope they’ll get a better understanding of the differences between what I call: ‘cheating to win’ and ‘cheating to lose’.  I hope they’ll also gain a better appreciation of the nuances and stresses upon athletes and why some might get involved in either cheating to win or cheating to lose and what some of the solutions might be.

I remain optimistic that we can work together in identifying solutions to uphold the integrity of sport.

Did you miss out on this event? Watch the discussion

Photo: Pesky Monkey via iStock