Cheating in sport - how much do we know?

Many of us have been glued to our TVs this month – watching the one-in-four-year festival of sports excellence hosted half a world away in Rio, Brazil.

Looking beyond the enthralling contests and medal celebrations, there’s one niggling question in the back of my mind: can we be sure these results are based purely on the skill and commitment of the athletes involved?


The answer is a coin with two sides; on the ‘cheating to win’ side, doping through the use of performance enhancing drugs, we can take some comfort from a rigorous testing regime and the bravery of whistle-blowers, such as Russian athlete Yulia Stephanova and her husband and Russian anti-doping agency staffer, Vitaly Stepanov. The subsequent investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) saw more than 100 athletes excluded before the Olympic torch was even lit.


On the other side of the coin, ‘cheating to lose’ through gambling-related match-fixing, the reality is that the public, and sports governing authorities, simply can’t tell.

Most people probably assume that there’s nothing to be gained from deliberate underperformance, but it’s more common than many realise.  Teams can and do deliberately ‘throw’ or ‘tank’ matches to assist their progression through a tournament.  At the London 2012 Olympic Games, we saw four women’s doubles pairs banned by the Badminton World Federation for deliberately losing to ensure themselves a better draw.

Even more concerning than tanking, which still has winning as the ultimate aim, is the possibility that individuals and teams may be induced by gamblers to ‘throw’ or otherwise improperly influence the outcome of a sporting contest, or some element within it, for financial or other benefits.  It’s known as ‘gambling fraud’: athletes and officials can easily fix elements within a match (such as foot faults, no balls, red cards, penalties, goal difference) as well as manipulating the “live” betting odds that are becoming more and more common on sporting telecasts.

Canadian investigative journalist Declan Hill’s seminal 2008 book, The Fix, exposed the colossal reach of ‘cheating to lose’ globally through hundreds of in depth interviews with players, referees, coaches/managers, fixers and gamblers in football and cricket.  In June 2010, the then-President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacque Rogge, stated: “cheating driven by betting is undoubtedly the biggest threat to sport after doping”.  (Rogge, 2010)

Has that claim been borne out? Has match-fixing now overtaken doping as the primary integrity threat?  After two years of extensive research, the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and the International Centre for Sport Security released the 2014 Sport Integrity Report Executive Summary.  The report found that organised criminals launder more than US$140 billion annually through sport betting; that 80 per cent of global sport betting is illegal; and that football and cricket are the sports most-targeted by criminals.

More recently, European law enforcement agencies have reported on this form of cheating in a myriad of sports, including the Olympic sports of tennis, volleyball, basketball, table tennis, handball and hockey.


Statistically then, you would have to assume that this type of cheating is also happening at Rio, but it is very difficult to tell, and we have very few ways of finding out.  There is an alarming lack of harmonised regulation and scant penalties for those who are actually ever caught.

General Corruption

More “regular” forms of corruption, involving fraud, bribery and nepotism that go beyond mere poor governance, have also been played out publicly this year within the Olympic family, most notably in football (FIFA) and athletics (IAAF).

In 2009 the global anti-corruption organisation, Transparency International (TI), considered that the levels of corruption in sport overall were so serious that it published its first industry-specific report – in sport (Transparency International, 2009).  In February this year, TI published its Global Corruption in Sport Report, and has developed a Corruption in Sport Initiative to capture current thinking on both challenges and solutions.

Australian context

The Australian Sports Commission’s (ASC) focus on good governance for our funded sports, the investigative powers available to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) and the national match-fixing policy promoted by the National Sports Integrity Unit (NISU) recognises that Australian athletes and sports are not immune.

There are some worrying signs across a range of Australian sporting codes. Not for the first time, the NRL had to come down hard on serious salary cap rorts. Since the 2010 Canterbury-Bankstown match against the North Queensland Cowboys involving Ryan Tandy, media allegations have continued to swirl around possible match fixing in the NRL.  On the eve of this years’ Australian Tennis Open there were international media reports of match fixing involving 29 tennis players [

If we had thought that match-fixing in Australia was limited to the greed of a few individuals, such as Australian professional tennis player, Nick Lindahl, who received a good behaviour bond and a life ban as a result of tanking his 2013 match in Toowoomba, or father and son harness-racers, Shayne and Greg Cramp, who received 12 year bans from their sport, we are quite wrong.  Gamblers, mostly based in Asia, have started targeting low-level, poorly paid competitions such as the Southern Stars club playing in the men’s Victorian Premier Football League.  There are also whispers about unusual bets placed in state level basketball and volleyball matches.

So what is the solution? Transparency and accountability in governance promoted by the ASC goes a long way. ASADA encourages athletes, officials and volunteers through their anti-doping education to be conscious of their integrity ‘line in the sand’.  This speaks to developing tools to ensure that we are attracting and retaining people with good values to lead our sports.  If we can educate sports administrators on ethics and the importance of being practively committed to integrity, they can set the culture by example.

We also need greater dedicated resources to tackle match-fixing.  ASADA’s budget is being slashed and more redundancies were announced immediately prior to Rio.  NISU sets the policy for integrity at the Federal level, but there is no investigative body, equivalent to ASADA, to combat cheating to lose.

The professional sports can afford their own internal integrity units, but the smaller sports, those most at risk, need an independent sports integrity body with the resources to work with administrators, players and police across state borders to investigate and prosecute those who seek to profit from cheating in all its forms.

Until then a sports-mad public can never be sure the sporting competitions they love are just that – a contest.

Catherine Ordway is guest speaker at an upcoming Bold Thinking Series on gambling, drugs on sport on Thursday 25 August at the State Library.

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