Is sport gambling with its credibility?

Sports betting is a growth industry, but with the increase comes the doubts. Can we trust the integrity of events when vast sums rest on their outcome - especially if those taking part have had a bet themselves? Greg Wood investigates

Many questions were raised by last Wednesday's abandoned international in Dublin. Had anyone been seriously hurt? How did the hooligans get into the ground? Could England be trusted with Euro '96? For David Kelly, however, there was another important issue. On hearing that the game had been called off after just 27 minutes, he asked: "What are the bookies going to do?"

Kelly had backed himself at 9-1 to score the first goal and was understandably anxious to discover whether he would be paid (he was, though bets on the result of the outcome were generally declared void). Three days later, Victor Ubogu would have won £1,800 if a friend had, as promised, placed for him a £100 bet at 18-1 with William Hill that he would score the first try at Cardiff Arms Park, (though since 28-1 was available with Coral, it may be true what they say about front-row forwards and the effect of all those scrums). And at Anfield on Sunday, the Wimbledon team, who bet as aggressively as they tackle, will have been encouraged by the £250 each-way they have staked on themselves at 66-1 to win the FA Cup. Should they succeed, £21,000 will be added to the players' pool.

Ten years ago, betting on sports other than football was all but non- existent. Today, sports betting is the biggest (indeed only) growth area in bookmaking, and suddenly everyone seems to be doing it, the players included. Its rise poses fundamental questions for sport around the world, ones that go to the heart of the games they govern. Essentially they ask whether sport can be trusted any more.

In the wake of gambling, almost inevitably, have followed suspicion and scandal, both real and imagined. Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh backed England at 500-1 for the Headingly Test in 1981. There were rumours, never proven and vehemently denied, of match-fixing in snooker. Lou Macari's money was on Newcastle when his Swindon team was beaten at St James' Park in the FA Cup. The accusations against Bruce Grobbelaar are still under investigation, and now members of the Pakistan cricket team are alleged to have thrown matches at the request of high-rolling syndicates in Bombay.

There is a statement which often accompanies mention of the Lillee/Marsh case which sums up the biggest problem for sports administrators when they consider betting by their players. Of course, it is said, no one suggested that the Australians' bet on England affected their play. Officially, this may be so, but in the pubs and clubs of England and Australia there were surely hundreds (in Australia, probably thousands) who did suggest just that. Players may bet on their sports in all innocence, but in certain circumstances the public will perceive something more.

Clearly, there is a difference between backing yourself to win and betting on your opponent to do so. "If someone wants to back themselves to score the first goal there's nothing wrong with that," Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for William Hill, says. "They'll be trying to do that and good luck to them. But if they want to back the opposing centre-forward to score first and they happen to be the centre-half, then that's not so innocent. But we've got no evidence to show that that happens, and it is very unlikely that there could be anything untoward."

Modern British bookmakers are not the ruthless, impeccably-informed wide- boys of popular myth. They are in fact ruthless, impeccably-informed accountants, which, from the point of view of anyone contemplating a coup, makes life much more difficult. Their security departments will immediately notice and investigate an unusual betting pattern, and withhold payment if there is any hint of sharp practice. The truth behind the alleged involvement of Asian betting syndicates in sport remains to be seen. As for Britain, though, our rich, legal and very suspicious bookies are a significant barrier to skulduggery.

Yet the problem of public perception remains. Suppose Kelly, in his next match for Ireland, shoots for goal and misses when his striking partner is better placed to score, or Ubogu goes for the line at Twickenham next month when Rory Underwood has an overlap, and costs England the Grand Slam. He may explain, truthfully, that he has not backed himself to score, but how readily will English fans will believe him?

Such concerns are at the root of the Scottish Football Association's strict ban on betting by its players. "It is a regulation of both the SFA and the Scottish Football Leagues that players should not become involved in betting, the pools excepted," David Findlay, of the SFA, says. "Basically we are mindful of the potential that exists for people to draw conclusions if players were known to bet regularly on matches. These rules have been in existence for a number of years and there are no proposals from our members to change them."

Few authorities react so strongly to gambling by players. The rules of the English FA also prohibit betting, but in practice officials admit that there are some circumstances (long-term bets to win a trophy, or being the first player to score) which they "frown upon but do not go to war with." Snooker, another popular gambling medium, has "no firm policy" on betting by players, according to Nigel Oldfield, of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association. "I think a lot of players would feel that betting on themselves would put too much extra pressure on them," Oldfield said.

The International Cricket Council's Code of Conduct does not mention betting, but a spokeswoman believed that it would attract a charge of bringing the game into disrepute. The laws of the Rugby Football Union, too, make no reference to betting.

It is football, however, which attracts by far the most significant share of the sports betting market, and the significant and growing sums wagered in Britain - not to mention the far east - each weekend should not be underestimated as a lure for the unscrupulous.

Here the increasing desire to have a bet on the game is most vividly illustrated by the proliferation of betting shops actually within grounds. The current rules on football betting were compiled in a gentler age, when stakes were insignificant. For example, betting on the outcome (home win, away win or draw) of individual league fixtures is prohibited, with the exception of matches which are televised live. In the age of satellite, however, this exception extends to dozens of games each season, while "single" bets are also permitted on FA Cup matches.

Even at the lowest end of the Football League, meanwhile, gambling is now so popular that bookmakers will offer first-scorer odds on Endsleigh Third Division matches at local betting shops. Here, a common (and convincing) argument against the possibility of corruption - that the players are earning so much that they would not want to risk their careers - does not apply. The best safeguard, as before, is the bookmakers' sensitivity to big bets, while it seems unlikely that punters in Singapore are queueing up to bet on Barnet versus Darlington.

"If there was any conflict between the rules of football, of which we are the governing body, and the gaming laws then I'm sure we would raise the issue when necessary," Mike Parry, of the Football Association, said. "But we have not reached that stage yet."

As for players betting on their own sport, it would be foolish to pretend that it is easy, or even possible, to enforce a ban. Those who wish to gamble need only ask a friend to bet on their behalf. At the very least, however, they may pause to reflect upon the reasons for the ban, and the suspicions, no matter how unfounded, which may arise if they are known to be gambling. As betting on sport continues to grow, it is a policy which many governing bodies may consider more seriously.

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