In 267AD Nicantinous and Demetrius, two teenage wrestlers, had reached the final bout in a prestigious competition in Egypt. Their fathers struck a deal. For the price of a donkey, Demetrius would “fall three times and yield”. The signed contract is the earliest surviving record of a sporting competition being stitched up for financial gain.
Today, match-fixing is a vast global enterprise. The pickings are rich. Around $2trn is wagered on sport each year, mostly with online bookmakers who enable punters to evade national anti-gambling laws. Around one game in 100 is thought to be manipulated across a range of sports.
Modern fixing is a more subtle affair than that of Nicantinous and Demetrius. It often involves manipulating the odds in live betting while a match is under way. Arranging for a cricketer to score poorly, say, or a footballer to be sent off at a certain point, or a tennis player to lose a particular game, allows bettors to predict how odds will move and lock in a profit much as insider traders beat the stockmarket. Athletes troubled by conscience can always tell themselves that a few wild swipes of a bat or a run of double faults are victimless crimes.
If punters willing to place illegal bets were the only victims, fixing might not matter so much. But they are not. Much of the profits go to violent gangsters. Among those defrauded are corrupt athletes’ innocent team-mates, legal bettors and ordinary fans, who pay to see a real contest, not a sham.
Sports administrators cannot be relied on to lead a clean-up. Some are themselves suspected of corruption—witness allegations of bribery in the choices of hosts for the football World Cup and Olympic games. And many seem to fear that revealing the scale of match-fixing would provoke a crisis of confidence. Little time or money is devoted to educating athletes about fixers’ methods, or to monitoring wagers to spot the suspicious betting patterns. Some of the cases that have come to light were uncovered by police investigating racketeering, not sports officials going after fixers. The governing body for tennis, dogged by suspicions of match-fixing, does not employ enough officials to have one at every professional event.
As more games are televised, more is bet on minor competitions, where players earn less and are therefore easier to corrupt. And as new sports gain popularity, the fixers will move in. They are already active in competitive video-gaming. Women’s cricket and football are likely to become targets, too.
To squeeze the fixers, governments need to do two things. The first is to legalise gambling, which is banned in many countries. Fixers need deep, liquid betting markets to profit from their crooked bets. If honest punters turn to legal bookmakers, fixers will follow, and authorities will find it easier to spot them at their work. The second is to pass laws against match-fixing which recognise that the evidence may consist of statistical analysis. Many countries have no match-fixing laws at all. When one corrupt player is caught and banned, the moneymen simply move on to the next.
Billions of people follow sport for the pleasure of seeing skilled athletes strive for victory and to share in the thrill of a fair competition. If the fixers are allowed to run the show, it will cease to be worth watching.