1 February 2016
Category Opinion
1 February 2016,

Sporting reputations are tumbling so fast, I doubt even Usain Bolt can keep up with them. We’ve had match-fixing in cricket and snooker, corruption in football, and doping in cycling, rugby, baseball and athletics. Now it’s the turn of tennis – and back to fixing matches.

A joint Buzzfeed-BBC investigation found that highly ranked tennis players had, over a number of years, been investigated over allegations that they took money from gambling syndicates to throw matches. That may not come as much of a surprise after so many scandals.

But the fact the group is said to include a Grand Slam winner does raise the question: why would people who have worked so hard to reach such heights risk everything for a fast buck? For those of us who can only dream of walking on to Centre Court at Wimbledon, it seems unfathomable that someone would be tempted to throw it away.

The money involved is not insignificant, of course. According to the Buzzfeed-BBC report, players were offered $50,000 (£35,000) or more per fix. Novak Djokovic says he once turned down $200,000 to lose a match early in his career. Leaving ethics aside, he cannot feel any financial regrets, having gone on to win, at the last count, just over $94m in prize money, not to mention many millions more for sponsorship and appearances.

However, for a lesser player whose career is waning, the offer of a five- or six-figure sum, possibly repeated several times a year, would look much more tempting: a nice earner before hanging up your racket.

When you see the headline numbers, professional sport seems very lucrative. But, with the exception of footballers, you don’t have to go very far down the rankings to find talented people struggling financially. A few years ago, a golfer who had been playing on the European Tour told me he had decided to take a job as a club coaching professional because it would pay better than his tournament earnings after deducting expenses.

So, if the financial incentive to cheat could be attractive for some, what about the risks? In the case of tennis, only a handful of low-ranked players have been disciplined. The 16 top 50 players at the centre of the Buzzfeed-BBC allegations have continued to play since they were first investigated in 2008 because the authorities say there was insufficient evidence.

There’s no suggestion there was a cover-up or corruption of the kind that has left international athletics in ruins, but the failure to act against any of the 16 is bound to create a perception that cheating is something you can get away with.

This risk-reward explanation is, though, simplistic and does not fit every case. It doesn’t begin to explain, for example, why US athlete Marion Jones resorted to steroids very early in her career when most experts agree she could have won Olympic medals without them.

When she was interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey Show, after spending six months in prison for lying under oath about using performance-enhancing drugs, she tearfully persisted with a claim that her coach had originally told her the tablets were flaxseed oil.

Winfrey was criticised for giving Jones an easy ride in the interview, but she is not alone in showing some sympathy for the athlete’s apparent naivety.

Dave Zirin, writing in The Nation magazine, said Jones had fame and fortune but was controlled by the men in her life. Under their influence, she became “less of a human being than a corporation with legs: Nike owned her feet, Oakley Sunglasses colonised her hypnotic eyes, and even her time was brought to her by the good people at TAG Heuer watches”.

So we come back to the money, but in a wider sense. We have perhaps become so accustomed to commercial domination of sport we only notice it when something goes badly wrong.

In the case of athletics, the role of Nike in helping its home state of Oregon secure the 2021 world championship without a bidding process hardly registered in the British media until it became a political issue around Seb Coe’s fitness to be the international governing body’s president.

This new controversy in tennis is so far being discussed largely without calling into question the ethics of the global betting companies that were instrumental in the allegations in the first place.

Betting may be legal, but perhaps it’s time to ask if it is bound to corrode the integrity of sport itself.

On Twitter, Roger Pielke, the University of Colorado professor who writes on sports governance, asked: “Does tennis match-fixing matter to anyone other than people who bet on tennis and companies that take bets on tennis?” Yes, it does. It also matters to fans who don’t bet and are deprived of an authentic contest.

Steve Howell

This article was first published by The Guardian.

Steve, a former sports journalist, is author of Over The Line, a novel telling the story of an athlete whose Olympic ambitions are threatened by an affair with a banned rugby player and the reopening of an police investigation into the steroid-linked death of an old school friend.

Follow him on Twitter @fromstevehowell

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