Well, it seems you can take the boy out of the betting industry, but you can’t take the betting industry out of the boy. Or not, at least, the desire to see some clarity brought to an old debate.
I’ve spent the day at the Professional Players’ Federation annual conference – an enjoyable and interesting affair until I found myself only just about managing to sit on my hands through an afternoon panel on ‘betting integrity’, which proved a frustrating thing to listen to. By the end, I was champing at the bit, and chatted briefly to (not to say let off steam at…) Tim Lamb and the day’s MC, Garth Crooks, who I last saw as we walked away from Wembley together with Dad after the 1996 FA Cup final.
I had never actually met Tim before, so it was good to do so at last. To his credit, during his spiel he stressed – many times – the need for ‘collaboration’ between all the parties involved if resolution is ever to be brought to the sports and betting debate.
But what concerned me about the session was the extent to which it – and so many sessions like it – served only to perpetuate myths which rapidly take on the status of fact in the public pysche. Tim commented that you can’t go into all the issues in depth in forty minutes, and of course he is right; but these short sessions serve only to mix up issues in a manner which distorts them beyond all recognition. It lands them all, erroneously in my view, in the betting industry’s camp; and, before you know it, solutions are being offered in Britain and Europe which do absolutely nothing to protect sport – and in many ways serve only to undermine it. Everyone’s a loser.
There were plenty of examples: Tim himself, right at the end (when he was asked what threat he thought there was to the Olympics next year), said that he was very concerned that an athlete might finish third in a heat, in order to save him/herself for the final. But this is not a betting issue: it is clear that it was ever thus. In fact, if anything, a real gambler will tell you that the knowledge that some athletes do this and others do not is part of the skill of betting – in that it requires more than a knowledge that “X is a good runner”. X may be a good runner, but may feel that he has only one race in him in which he can truly go flat out, perhaps because he is getting on a bit. That makes his decision to cruise in his heat and to storm in his final all part of his strategy; and so, too, is building that possibility into an assessment of the odds, all part of a gambler’s.
This is not limited to Olympic sports, nor to athletics. It’s a natural thing in sport; and if we lump it into the debate about the potential impact of betting, then we are looking under the wrong stones. Tim, when I discussed it with him briefly, commented that it was an insider trading issue. Moot; but if conceded, so what? So what if the family knows, or the coach knows, or other participants know? A decent journalist will know, as well; and so, doubtless, will an Anorak. The point is that the athlete or team sets out to win a gold medal. Sure, it’s pretty annoying for the gambler who doesn’t think about it and bets purely on the basis of reputation, but is that corruption in sport? Not in my book, it isn’t. In my book, corruption in sport is about someone who is going to win, and doesn’t, on purpose, because he’s being paid not to. It’s about changing the intensity of your performance for a reason not connected with your striving to finish as well-placed as your ability allows – usually for a financial return.
Garth commented that I was making a fine distinction. I think his view would be shared by more than mine. But for me, it is not a fine distinction to want to separate out issues that should not be connected, but are currently lumped together by a catch-all umbrella: on the contrary – it seems to me essential if this debate is to progress.
In the space of forty minutes this afternoon, we heard about how one incident can undermine the public’s faith in sport forevermore; coercion of players in third-division East European football; the Italian mafia; Indian betting syndicates which “do everything online and by SMS”; the alleged regular placing of $1bn on Premiership football matches; the fact that match-fixing is the biggest problem football has ever faced; “transcontinental, international crime”; the exploitation of the slow pictures by Chinese triads who pay people to watch Premiership matches and relay information by mobile phone; and the need to educate sportsmen in England, to help them avoid the slippery slope.
I am not dismissing any of these issues; but I am questioning which of them we should be worrying about on the basis that they are under our control (and by ‘our’ I mean right-thinking people with a love of sport, although I might more properly say “the control of the world’s sporting regulators”).
Sure, it’s annoying for anyone with a heart to think that there are poor unfortunate people who bet in China with illegal triads (because their government makes it illegal for them to express a view of the world legitimately). Those punters are being taken for a ride because the person offering the bet has heard by telephone what happened a few seconds earlier, and knows it has not yet been transmitted onto the television. But is it a threat to the integrity of British or European sport? Clearly, it isn’t. The fact that the picture of what happened takes longer to be transmitted than the verbal relaying of the information does not mean that the striker either changes what he’s already done (and scores with a penalty which a moment earlier he had put wide) or does something other than what would have happen naturally, because he’d been paid for it.
Equally, it’s a great shame that some areas of Europe are so riddled with bandits that people feel that the forces of law and order are not sufficient to protect them and are therefore more easily coerced into rigging matches; but I am not sure that that sad fact gives us many lessons for the English Premiership.
And much as I abhor the illegal betting that takes place on the Indian subcontinent, I don’t think it bears any more relation to what happens at Ladbrokes than does the attention to hygiene when food is prepared in a shanty town outside Mumbai with a curry house regulated by the UK’s 1999 Food Standards Act.
Sadly, though, the failure to separate issues into those that matter and those that, frankly, don’t (as far as that starting point, the danger that “one bad incident can undermine public confidence in sport forevermore”, is concerned), is rife. And it seems to me that until we have some perspective about what it is we are actually talking about, and what we can really address, we are destined to go round in circles to no useful effect.
Similarly, the extent of the issue needs to be given some perspective. Again, that is not to say we should belittle it: the simple fact that where money can be made, someone will always try to make money corruptly should be enough to ensure that we do what we can to protect our sport from wrong. But is that helped by scaring people witless?
FIFA’s Head of Security, Chris Eaton, ‘bandied about’ (PPF Chairman Brendon Batson’s word, not mine; but more accurate than I think he meant it) figures which both shocked and impressed the audience. But the quantity in which they did was otherwise equalled only by the extent to which they didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
He compared, for instance, FIFA’s “profit” of $1bn on the World Cup with betting “turnover” estimated (by him) to be $1trn. One is achieved with a margin against turnover; the other is recycled money which bears no relation to what is actually being lost (or spent). I’m all for inoculating the patient; but is the best way to do that to start a panic about contagion? These numbers are meaningless unless put into context. He might as well have given one number in yen and another in sterling; or one in binary and the other, decimal, while comparing the number of digits.
There’s an awful lot being done at the moment on betting and sport. People are running around all over the place, and I applaud both their endeavour and the calls for collaboration. But we need, too, to take a breath. Sports bodies, from nowhere, suddenly think that betting threatens their existence like never before, and such is their zeal that the betting industry is concerned that sport see it merely as a means to make money in the manner of the French. Far from being a way of undermining the black market, that will be a way to exacerbate it. If we are to move forward in a manner which is positive for everyone, we desperately need to separate all these debates into their constituent parts.