Cheats, match-fixing and the integrity of sport

Last week, Mark Arbib stepped down from his role as Federal Minister for Sport. It was a role he had held since September 2010. Under his charge, elite sport in Australia flourished. The AOC loved him, largely because he ignored the recommendation of the very-expensive-and-extensively-researched 2009 Crawford Report to stop throwing money at Olympic sports. Instead, Sr Arbib committed $14m to Olympic sports and created the $4m 'Green and Gold Project' aimed exclusively at funding Olympic and Paralympic sports at the high-performance level. He'd be the favourite man in Australian elite sport, if that position were not already taken by Gerry 'Mr Jayco' Ryan.

As he left office, (ex)Senator Arbib wrote an article in Melbourne's Sunday Age reflecting on his role and the challenges facing sport. He stated that, while doping had been the 'great shadow' cast over sport in the 80s and 90s, it is match-fixing which now poses the greatest threat to sports' integrity. Cheating, he said, erodes people's confidence in sport. So long as there is gambling in sport, there will be corruption. Australia is leading the way in fighting corruption in sport at a domestic level,but at an international level there is not yet any comprehensive anti-corruption framework. Arbib called for an international body to be formed to co-ordinate information sharing between governments, sporting bodies and betting providers: this is what we need to properly fight match-fixing.

Corruption in sport is a hot issue. It is a hot issue because people like sports betting. Match-fixing, and the abuse of insider information - both of which distort betting outcomes - undermine the integrity of sport and can involve significant fraud. In sports where betting is prevalent, like AFL or cricket, match-fixing has the potential to cause significant disruption in a market. Globally, the sports betting industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars: corruption can be profitable and hard to detect.

In most sports, we call match-fixing 'cheating'. The idea of determining the outcome of a sporting event by anything other than athletic ability is abhorrent. So when a football player misses an easy goal, a jockey steers his horse to the outside barrier, or a cricket player bowls nothing but wides, and we find out that they were offered money to do it, we scream blue murder.

Except in cycling.

In cycling, deals are made all the time. And they generally involve money, because cyclists race for money. Riders in a breakaway agree that one will take the intermediate sprints and the other the stage win. Two friends agree that one will win this week and the other the week after. Vinokourov famously (allegedly) offered €100,000 to Alexandr Kolobnev in the final kilometres of last year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège to sit up so that Vino could take the win. At the 2009 Australian road championships, Mick Rogers reportedly offered eventual winner Peter McDonald thousands of dollars to let him ride away on the last lap. When I first started bike racing, my friend rocked up on the start line of a local crit to see three other girls already dividing up the placings and prize money between them.

This kind of fixing is not seen as wrong because it's part of the strategy that earns cycling its reputation as a game of chess on wheels. It doesn't involve an entire team or field. It may not work due to other variables in the race. And, largely, it affects few beyond those people directly involved. The agreements are made between riders on the spot, not pre-meditated. The objective for the rider offering the fix is to get a better result, not to distort a betting outcome. For these reasons, it's difficult to categorise this behaviour as corrupt. But it does affect the outcome of competition. So why do we not mind?

If we look at the two major challenges that Mark Arbib identified in his article - doping and match-fixing - and apply them to cycling, it is clear which one has been the bigger problem. Historically, doping has been the method of choice by which professional cyclists distort competition outcomes. The economic rationalists of the peleton can see that it's easier to make one rider go faster than anyone else than it is to fix agreements with every single cyclist in a 100+ bunch. So the importance of an agreement between two riders on whether or not to sprint fades into insignificance when compared with the fundamental, inarguable wrong of doping.

Until the 1920s, doping was considered a normal part of professional bike racing. As the competitive landscape evolved, doping came to be viewed as detrimental to the integrity of the sport. Now, doping in the professional peleton - if we believe the reports - is becoming less and less prevalent. There are biological passports. There are surprise drug tests. If cycling is not winning the war on doping, it is at least making progress. When - or if - it does win that war, does that mean that the 'gentlemen's agreements' that we currently consider to be a normal part of cycling is the next frontier?

Law-makers in Australia are moving to introduce nationally-consistent legislation criminalising match-fixing in sport. The NSW Law Reform Commission has just proposed an amendment to the NSW Crimes Act which, if passed, would impose criminal penalties on conduct that corrupts the betting outcome of an event. Under the proposed law, conduct would be illegal if (a) it is undertaken to obtain a financial advantage as a result of betting, and (b) is contrary to the standards of integrity of the sport.

As long as making fixing agreements is 'normal' is cycling - that is, so long as it is not considered contrary to cycling's integrity - then it will be seen as a tactical decision rather than cheating. And until cycling generates the kind of betting revenue that sports like football and cricket do, it is not likely to attract attention from regulators. But when it does, the sport will change. Because it is a fine line between strategy and corruption... and today's gentleman's agreement is tomorrow's conspiracy.

Ride happy.