The Offshore Industry and the Integrity of the Olympic Games

July 4th, 2012

flickr / Andrea Vascellari

Everyone knows athletes cheat. Cheating has existed for as long as sports themselves. During the ancient Olympic Games in Greece, officials placed pedestals inscribed with athletes’ names at the entrance of the stadium. The names were not of great athletes, but of those who violated the rules of the Games, in order to punish them into perpetuity. In today’s version of public dishonor, our media nationally broadcasts the names and crimes of steroid-injecting baseball players, blood-doping cyclists, and plotting figure-skaters.

Not all athletes cheat—even those who have the opportunity to. I would know. For three years, I lived at the Olympic Training Center in New York, where I lived and trained year-round for the sport of sprint kayaking.  Surrounded by some of the country’s finest athletes taught me a lot about who athletes are and how they think.  Honor was paramount to every one of them—whether they were bobsledders or speed skaters, ski jumpers or rhythmic gymnasts.  Everyone wanted to achieve their best performance, everyone wanted to make the team or win the race, but no one wanted to cheat.

The reality I see on the news is often difficult to reconcile with my memories of the decent, strong, driven people who cared about the sweat and honor on the road to victory more than the glory of a gold medal.

But I remind myself that while the vast majority of athletes—humans even—act morally even when no one is watching, there will always be a minority that flouts the rules when they can. And it is against the actions of that minority—whether in sports or in banking—that we must take precautions.

With the London Olympics only a month away, our eyes now turn to those safeguards. While the most conspicuous Olympic preparations are the Village and the ceremonies, there are also other, less glamorous, preparations that must take place. For example, ensuring athletes don’t cheat.

We usually think of doping as the paramount opportunity for would-be cheaters. But as the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Jacques Rogge, has cautioned, illegal betting now ranks alongside doping as a major threat to the future of sport.

Illegal betting goes hand-in-hand with match fixing, which occurs when an event is played to a completely or partially pre-determined result. This can occur if an athlete (or team) deliberately loses either for a perceived future competitive advantage or in union with gamblers. Given that not all Olympians are well paid (or even paid at all), the monetary incentive to throw a game might be stronger than you’d think.

Partly we have instantaneous communication and universal broadcast to thank for the rising prevalence illegal betting and match fixing. Rogge points out: “I can’t open my newspapers without finding an article on the prevalence of cheating and match fixing. In Germany, Italy, Belgium, Hungary, Turkey, Greece. In China, in South Korea, in Singapore. It is a world problem and it is a very pernicious problem.”

As with doping, there are mechanisms to detect this type of cheating. For example, officials watch bookmakers for irregular betting patterns. In the UK, British-based bookmakers are required to inform the Gambling Commission when they detect irregular betting patters—which will provide the Games with an early warning system for potential corruption and allow them to investigate before the abuse gets out of hand.

Unfortunately for the integrity of sports, bookmaking firms are increasingly moving offshore, where they are not bound by these rules. While major exchanges argue they share information voluntarily, they do not have an incentive to rat out their own customers (hey, just like banks!) and so it is unlikely they would share as much if information sharing were mandatory.

While the UK has vowed to address this loophole, government officials have noted the changes won’t take effect until after the Games. Tim Payton, an adviser and spokesman for the collective of governing bodies, responded: “As things stand, the IOC will not have the right to monitor all bets placed in the UK during the Games – and this is of concern.”

It is a concern. Without full information and monitoring the IOC will not be able to fully detect cheating. And you can bet your bottom dollar (pun intended) that those who do seek to cheat will be the first in line at the offshore bookies. Suppose (very hypothetically) athletes were suddenly exempt from drug testing if they found lodging outside the Olympic Village…where would all the cheaters go? The same principal holds for bookies and for tax evasion. If you create a loophole or allow a safe haven for cheaters, you’ve undermined your own system. You’ve lost the integrity.


Written by Ann Hollingshead

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