An Athlete’s perspective on match fixing: what sports’ governing bodies should learn from Shuttlegate
Published 09 November 2012 By: Emma Mason
On Tuesday the 31st of July 2012, during the Olympic Badminton tournament, four ladies doubles pairs participated in 'Shuttlegate'. These two matches would end their Olympic journeys and serve as a very public example of the newest threat to modern sport; match-fixing.
The pairs took the court for the group stage matches having already secured safe passage to the knockout rounds. From the start, the players' conduct made clear they had determined to 'play to lose' to ensure a more favourable draw in the next round. During both matches the crowd audibly voiced their disapproval of the debacle. Yet, the matches were allowed to go to completion. The result? For the first time in my living memory, Badminton was the subject of national and international newspapers headlines and the reputation of the sport as a whole was called into question.
To their credit, the governing body was swift to respond calling a disciplinary meeting the following day with the players concerned to ascertain the full details of the scandal. Subsequently, all eight players were disqualified from the tournament with immediate effect.
As a former player, I naturally felt saddened by the event: the incident marred what was an exceptionally strong and exciting Badminton tournament1. However, I am certain that there is much governing bodies can and must learn from Shuttlegate. In doing so, they would ensure the fiasco becomes a turning point in the fight against match-fixng and is not condemned to history as another missed opportunity by those in power to halt its destructive potential.
What is Match-Fixing?
Before proceeding, it is necessary to draw a line between the two types of match-fixng currently threatening sport, though an incident can have elements of both. Where a match is manipulated to achieve a performance related outcome it is often termed 'Sporting Fraud' which is in contrast to a situation typically termed 'Illegal Betting and Gambling' where an athlete fixes a match for a monetary outcome. The latter has had widespread news coverage, however Shuttlegate, and what this article concentrates on, was an example of the former; medals, not money, ultimately motivated the Badminton player's actions. Since Shuttlegate, a range of sports as diverse as Handball, Boxing and Football2 have been tainted by performance-orientated match-fixng. I believe that, certainly for minority sports, performance-orientated match-fixng poses a great threat to their integrity: this type of sporting fraud does not rely upon sufficient public interest to create an illicit money making opportunity. Indeed, it can occur in any sport where a situation arises that makes it beneficial for a player or team to intentionally underperform.
What lessons can be learned from Shuttlegate?
A prerequisite for prevention of performance-orientated match-fixng is that sports governing bodies (SGB's) accept and recognise it as a danger. While there has been widespread discussion and condemnation of illegal betting and gambling, few SGB's have sought to publicly declare themselves against the type of match-fixng seen in Shuttlegate. Instead, many SGB's have preferred to deny the existence of the problem or adamantly refuse to comment. Further, those who have accepted the threat, have typically been forced to do so in response to an uncovered scandal. As a former athlete, I believe that is a naïve and reckless approach to governance underlined by the damage these events can cause a sport's reputation3. Without a strong public stance, the problem will continue to fester and will be in danger of being overlooked and overshadowed by the publicity surrounding anti-doping and illegal betting and gambling.
With the benefit of hindsight, looking forward, I believe every SGB should employ an anti-corruption framework. There are four key areas SGB's should target to reduce performance-orientated match-fixng:
- Regulations and tournament structures that restrict and deter match-fixng;
- Investigatory procedures for suspected match-fixing;
- Sanctions that can be implemented for confirmed match-fixing; and
- An established support and education unit for victims of match-fixng.
Following acceptance, the next logical step for an SGB is to develop a series of regulations to deter match-fixng. The regulatory framework employed must be an adequate disincentive: it must not simply encourage fair play but be clear as to the consequences for an athlete choosing to breach them. However, it must be acknowledged that there are several problems SGB's face during the development process. Firstly, unlike doping practices, each sport has unique playing rules and therefore the methods utilised in match-fixng vary greatly. Secondly, the unique nature of the threats has lead to SGB's typically requiring sport specific regulations rather than relying upon one universal regulatory body, for example WADA in anti-doping. Thirdly, the nature of 'match-fixng' itself means that it is an exceptionally difficult accusation to prove. There are no analytical tools to detect performance-orientated match-fixng and therefore the governing bodies are entirely reliant on non-analytical evidence such as witness testimony or, as in Shuttlegate, blatant lack of effort. Nonetheless, there have been some successful regulatory and disciplinary bodies set up by sport governing bodies notably the ATP Integrity Unit and FIFA's Early Warning System. Admittedly, most of these methods are devised to tackle monetary driven match-fixng but SGB's would be well advised to extract the most relevant methods and adapt them to their own needs.
There are, however, many SGB's who have already implemented regulations. Even so, I would argue that regulations used in isolation are, at best, a temporary fix. The SGB's have a duty to their fans and to their athletes to go further and investigate why match-fixng is able to occur within their sport. Very often the potential for performance-orientated match-fixng arises from a structural flaw in the tournament. This is not a modern phenomenon. For example, during the 1982 Football World Cup the blatantly fixed match between Austria and West Germany was caused by use of a pre-determined draw format after the group stages. In this case, Austria had already qualified for the knockout stages regardless of the result while Germany needed to win by one goal: Germany scored in the first ten minutes and the players, realising this result suited both teams, patently stopped playing to the best of their abilities4. In this case many observers sought to blame the athletes for abusing the loophole that arose. To an extent, I agree. The players' behaviour was reprehensible, but for two reasons I do not believe all blame can be laid at their door. First, as will be discussed below, players are not always in full control of their actions and second it took the existence of the loophole for the players to have the opportunity to exploit it. This behaviour is not uncommon and is seen in dead rubbers in many sports where a weaker side5 is openly fielded, regardless that this is unsporting and fraudulent. As such, it follows that one effective way to reduce match-fixng would be to employ tournament structures that eradicate the possibility of such a situation arising in the first place. This is where effective information sharing between sports would be of benefit. The SGB's whose current structures facilitate match-fixng should seek to learn from sports that have successfully marketed more foolproof formats. I recognise many sports have experimented with alternate formats for the benefit of heightened viewer experience to entice further media coverage and increase revenue. However, if these new formats foster match-fixng then the good intentions are ultimately undermined; there will be few sponsors who will want to associate with a sport plagued by match-fixng.
Within an effective framework it is essential that SGB's develop a committee with the powers to intervene and investigate any potential cases of match-fixng. These committees are commonly known as an 'Integrity Unit'. The Integrity Unit must have powers conferred upon them that allow them to monitor match play, request athletes and (where relevant) coaches to appear before them to explain any suspicious irregularities in play. As part of an SGB's role is to regulate their sport, then they must be willing and able to hold to account those who threaten the integrity of their sport. A comparison of the current threat match-fixng poses to a sport's integrity against the more traditional risk proffered by anti-doping shows the clear lesson from sports such as Equestrianism6 that an Integrity Unit is vital7: not only will an Integrity Unit help to repair reputational damage done by a fraudulent event but it will help curtail future development of the problem. Having said this, the investigatory powers and process of inquiry must be fair, appropriate and not violate the rights of the athlete or coach in order to ensure the credibility of any ensuing sanctions.
Ergo, investigatory powers are ineffective in isolation without the back up of appropriate and proportional sanctions. The penalties utilised by SGB's must not only punish those who have participated in match-fixng but also deter those considering it. These sanctions must be proportionate to the offence committed and should not allow participants, or those who encouraged or supported the players' behaviour, to gain from their actions. It would therefore be sensible to implement sanctions that nullify any associated benefits of the fixed match. Sanctions could include publicly naming all parties found guilty, docking all ranking points and prize money associated with the match or event and mandate that those guilty take no further part in the event and for a specified number of following events (tournament bans). These sanctions must be equally applicable to coaches found to have encouraged the players' behaviour or who were aware of the situation and took no preventative action.
The final element of an effective anti-corruption framework is, in my opinion, an education and support unit for officials, coaches and athletes. Through improved training and education, the technical officials are better able to identify the warning signs of match-fixng. Further, they gain a complete understanding of the powers they hold which they must enforce when necessary. Thereafter, the SGB can be confident that it has done all it can to equip itself with a visual, real time deterrent. Not only will this protect the integrity of the sport by serving a clear warning to those considering match-fixng, but it will also give innocent players confidence that their SGB will protect their own rights to fair competition. Interpol and FIFA8 have identified a comprehensive education system as a key tool in the global fight against match-fixng. I would argue that this should prove persuasive to other SGB's since at the time of writing FIFA has been one of the most proactive sports in devising and implementing anti match-fixng strategies.
As a final point, I believe an SGB must provide a support unit for those who are victims of match-fixng. There are three types of victims associated with performance-orientated match-fixng: the sports' fans, the athletes whose progress is hampered by the match-fixng and those athletes who participate in match-fixng under coercion. With regard to the fans, undoubtedly many will believe they have not received value for money and SGB's owe a duty to repay their support by enforcing a successful anti-corruption framework that will ensure they are watching true competition and not predetermined play. The athletes who have been adversely affected by the actions of their peers must be supported. The SGB must make available an option to convey any information they may have regarding an incident, anonymously and without fear of retribution. The athletes who actually participate in the match-fixng are admittedly not obvious victims. However, as a former athlete I appreciate the profound influence that the people closest to athletes wield over them. This group of people are termed the 'athlete's entourage' and their power, and its potential for misuse, has been identified by the International Olympic Committee9. By offering these players' an option to come forward with information in the knowledge that they will be supported by their SGB may help reduce the number of players who feel compelled to take part in match-fixing against their own free will. For this reason, I believe that there must available support for those coerced into match-fixng in addition to the sanctions introduced for corrupt entourage members.
In conclusion, though Shuttlegate was highly uncomfortable for all associated with Badminton, I hope that the incident successfully highlighted the dangers of performance-orientated match-fixng to the wider sporting community. Moreover, it is my hope that Shuttlegate acts as a catalyst for widespread change amongst the attitudes of sports governing bodies. Though the points outlined above are my personal perspective of changes that could be employed in the fight against match-fixing, any fair and effective method that reaches the same goal would no doubt be welcomed by athletes worldwide.
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Emma is a trainee solicitor in Squire Patton Boggs’ sports litigation department who has completed seats in corporate, international dispute resolution and a secondment to Chelsea Football Club. During her traineeship Emma has, from a sporting perspective, assisted with the sale of a Championship football club and the provision of advice to various International Federations and Premier League football clubs.