Exclusive: Gambling is 'bigger threat to sport than doping'

Authorities intend to make players register every bet to weed out corruption

Nick Harris
Friday 06 March 2009 01:00 GMT

Professional sportsmen and women face having to register every bet they make under stringent reforms intended to root out corrupt gambling.

In the past 17 months, the industry watchdog the Gambling Commission has investigated 47 cases of alleged match-fixing and illegal betting on British sporting events, The Independent has learnt. The governing bodies of football, tennis, cricket, horse racing and other sports are discussing with ministers plans for tough new regulations which they hope will stamp out what they consider to be "as great a risk to the integrity of sport as doping".

One senior official explained the threat to the country's most popular spectator events, saying: "Football, rugby and cricket don't have a doping problem, but they know they have serious gambling problems."

British sporting officials have privately voiced concerns to the Government about insider betting. The Sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, will take the lead in negotiations with the governing bodies and the Gambling Commission to combat the threat.

A spokesman for the commission told The Independent that horse racing, football and snooker accounted for most of the match- fixing allegations, but it was widely accepted that cricket and tennis are among the other susceptible disciplines.

A "golden decade" lies ahead for British sport: London will host the 2012 Olympics, Glasgow has the 2014 Commonwealth Games and England is bidding to host the 2018 World Cup. But administrators fear these events could be undermined by a major betting scandal of the type seen abroad.

In 2000, the South Africa cricket captain Hansie Cronje admitted taking a £68,000 payment from bookmakers for providing them with match information to fix the results of games. He was banned from the sport for life, and later died in a plane crash.

The Football Association's current investigations include a match between Accrington Stanley and Bury in May last year, which led to reports of irregular betting patterns. It is also trying to establish who profited from a £1m punt on a non-league fixture between Weymouth and Rushden & Diamonds last month, when Weymouth fielded their reserve team and lost 9-0.

However, the FA faces an uphill struggle. In October, it began investigating a Championship match between Derby and Norwich following an alleged Asian betting sting. But it was forced to halt the inquiry because it has no jurisdiction outside the UK and could not establish who was behind the bets, which were all placed overseas. As one senior sports executive said last night: "A major betting scandal in any of our sports would be toxic for Britain's reputation. Complacency is not an option."

Punters across the globe flock to bet on British sport because it has a reputation for integrity and fairness. A range of strict new measures is proposed, such as random checks on betting firms' books to seek evidence of improper wagers, and monitoring all betting activity by professional sportspeople.

It could become mandatory for an athlete to be listed in a commission register – to be shared with gambling operators – that would trigger an investigation any time he placed a bet in contravention of his sport's rules, either with a traditional bookie or online. No such monitoring is in place now.

Sport and gambling have long been bedfellows. Footballers were renowned as punters long before the 1970s quip that "if Stan Bowles could pass a bookie like he could pass a ball, he would have had no worries". The existing rules do not forbid footballers from betting on football matches per se – only those they are involved in.

Jockeys are banned from betting on all horse racing, while trainers can back their own horse to win, but not to lose.

The sporting authorities will tell Mr Sutcliffe that they should have a greater say in what bets a bookmaker can offer, arguing that "high-risk markets" – which can be manipulated by just one person's actions – invite malpractice. Examples include the number of double-faults a tennis player will serve, eliciting a booking in football, or being run out in cricket. It is currently possible to bet on all of these.

No one knows the extent of corrupt betting in British sport, but the Gambling Commission told The Independent that in just 17 months it received 47 notifications of betting patterns that were sufficiently irregular that they may lead the commission to consider voiding a bet.

Of those, 35 involved betting firms notifying governing bodies of irregularities; the other 12 were a mix of governing bodies asking bookmakers to look at incidents, or the commission asking bookmakers to act on independent "intelligence".

Not all suspicious cases will be officially reported. The Independent understands, for example, that every season the FA begins inquiries into "about five or six" cases of what could widely be termed "gambling-related malpractice". Most of these are not reported to the Gambling Commission and are closed, perhaps after a warning to a player not to bet on his own team.

Rarer cases of concern involve insiders betting with prior knowledge of a likely defeat or another specific incident, such as a red card. These are complex and the FA's investigations – at least one of which is ongoing – are long and secretive. Tim Payton, a spokesman for a coalition of governing bodies that includes football, cricket and horse racing, among others, said: "Match fixing is as great a risk to the integrity of sport as doping. That is why the sports have been campaigning for greater regulation of sports betting for some time.

"We are encouraged that [Mr Sutcliffe] has responded positively to our suggestion that we work with his department and the Gambling Commission to review and strengthen the arrangements that are in place. British sport has a good reputation and wants to keep it that way. The budget for the UK's anti-doping programme has just increased to £8m a year. This includes a huge testing programme which has a considerable deterrent effect as participants know they face a high chance of being detected. The same rigour needs to be applied to match fixing."

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