Can the Olympics be rigged?

Gamblers influence major sporting tournaments around the world

By Nicholas Nehamas

Questions are being raised about potential match-fixing at the London Olympics. (Reuters).

It’s a reasonable question after the events of the last few days.

Already, an Irish Olympian is under investigation for placing bets on his opponent.

And eight female athletes from four badminton teams have been thrown out of the London Games for intentionally throwing matches. The women – who had already qualified for the quarterfinal – apparently tried to lose in order to avoid playing a high-ranked Chinese team in the next round.

There’s no suggestion yet that match-fixing gamblers had anything to do with the badminton scandal. But legal gambling is a big, global business, and no sporting event is bigger than the Olympics. Betting companies expect to handle around $155 million in wagers during the London Olympics.

Criminals are known to influence major sporting tournaments around the world for their own profit. And there’s no reason to think it couldn’t happen at the London Olympics, Declan Hill tells Latitude News.

Hill is a Canadian-born, Oxford-educated investigative journalist who’s covered the Canadian mafia and conflicts in Kosovo and Iraq. His best-selling book, “The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime,” helped uncover an Asian match-fixing syndicate that rigs high-profile soccer games on almost every continent.

Hill says money is the underlying issue. Olympic athletes aren’t paid for their participation in the games. If you’re Michael Phelps, that doesn’t matter. You’ll still make millions on sponsorship deals.

But if you’re an unheralded defender on Nigeria’s soccer team or a low-ranked Cambodian tennis player, you’re not making a dime.

It all comes down to the cash

“The central dynamic at these big tournaments,” Hill argues “is that there are full stands, TV broadcast rights, lucrative sponsorship deals. In other words, there’s all kinds of money floating around. But you have certain players and certain teams running onto the field knowing that someone is making a lot of money off the event – it’s just not them. It’s not the athlete at the heart of the event.”

Fixers understand that. They approach players who know the Olympics might be their one big chance for a payday. There’s no need to try and fix the gold-medal match. That would draw too much attention. The best opportunity for a fix, says Hill, is when a team has already been eliminated from competition but still has a game left to play.

“If you get to a third game where you’re not going to go through, why not go home with thirty or forty thousand bucks in your pocket?” asks Hill. “That’s more money than anyone else will give you. Lose above the spread and go home with cash in your pocket.”

Bet on a sure thing

Russian mobster Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov is alleged to have fixed a figure skating competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. (Reuters)

Hill says soccer players and the criminals themselves claim fixers were active at the 2004 Olympics in Athens – as they have been at World Cups and international youth tournaments. He pointed to tennis, a sport with a troubling history of corruption, as another possible area of concern.

And, of course, observers have long suspected that figure skating, a winter event, can be fixed. In 2002, a judging scandal at the Salt Lake Olympics led to the arrest of the reputed Russian mobster Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov in Italy. But the Uzbekistan-born criminal was never extradited to the U.S., where he is still wanted on charges of fraud.

“The concept of certainty in a risky world is huge in gambling,” Hill says. “And if you fix a game at the Olympics or World Cup, the pool of money is in the millions. If you put 2 or 3 million dollars down on some African nation to lose against a strong team, people say, ‘Oh, you’re only getting 40 or 50 percent of your money back.’ But that’s still a million and a bit, depending on how much you bet. What other business can you get that kind of return so easily?”

Hill says there are certain common-sense fixes that could help ease corruption:

  • Eliminate the incentive for fixing by making sure that players and referees are well-compensated for participating in the Games.
  • Increase security. Fixers are often well-known figures, easily recognized, who could be banned from traveling to tournaments.
  • Have the betting industry pay a small percentage of their total revenue to pay for these anti-fixing improvements.
  • Arrest the criminals. Hill says police investigations in Italy, Greece, Finland, Turkey and many other countries have produced names and addresses for top fixers in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. “It’s not a mystery who these guys are,” Hill says. But he speculated that fixers are being protected by high-level connections in sport and government.

We asked Hill if he had seen any suspicious incidents yet at this Olympics. “I never speculate on matches,” he replied. “But are the fixers going to be in London? You bet. Will they actually succeed? Well, we’re not doing much to stop them.”

You can read more about the controversial topic of Olympic match-fixing at Hill’s blog.