Fighting to Keep World Sports a Fair Game

The New York Times on April 24, 2012 released the following:


LYON — In ancient Greek mythology, Hercules had to slay the multiheaded serpent-like Hydra, guardian of the underworld, although each time a head was cut off, two others would grow in its place.

In modern sports, it can seem that the authorities face a similar and equally herculean task in the global fight against illegal sports betting and match-fixing.

Michel Platini, the head of UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, which runs the richest sports club tournament in the world, the Champions League, has called illegal betting the greatest danger to the game, “the one that can kill football.”

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, goes even further.

“Sport is in danger,” Rogge said. “It’s not about the Olympics, it’s not about the Games, it’s about sport in general. Illegal betting in sport generates a turnover of around $140 billion a year, and it is inevitable that the Games will be sullied.”

According to the World Lottery Association, an organization of state-authorized lotteries, €90 billion, nearly $120 billion, is spent each year in legitimate wagers on soccer games. The same group estimates that another €90 billion is spent in illegitimate soccer betting. But Interpol, the international police organization, estimates have put the figure much higher.

While the problem of match-fixing in soccer has existed for decades, it appears to have intensified in recent years, aided by the Internet. Concerned by this apparent surge, international soccer authorities and law enforcement officials joined forces last year in their struggle to combat rampant match-fixing by what they describe as sprawling networks of organized crime based in Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, pledged $20 million in May 2011 to create a unit within Interpol in Singapore dedicated to rooting out match-fixing in Asia.

Noboru Nakatani, until recently the special adviser to the head of Japan’s National Police Agency, is moving to Singapore this month to oversee the research and development facility.

The unit aims to develop a program for officials, players and administrators that warns against match-fixing and alerts them to how it dishonors the game and might ruin their careers.

Ronald K. Noble, secretary general of Interpol, has said that gambling on sports “might seem as harmless as placing a small bet on your favorite team.”

But these operations, he notes, are often controlled by “organized criminals who frequently engage in loan sharking and use intimidation and violence to collect debts.” He added, “If that doesn’t work, they force their desperate, indebted victims into drug smuggling and into prostitution.”

Rogge has suggested that athletes must be educated about corruption, and that education is needed worldwide to instill knowledge about how and where to prevent the betting and fixing cases that have become prevalent in a number of sports, including soccer, cricket, and even sumo wrestling.

Education is the task that Fred Lord, who spent 10 years on undercover missions to crack covert police corruption in his native Australia, is undertaking at Interpol. His department, the Interpol Integrity in Sports program, is headed by Michaela Ragg, a former German federal police officer, and advises sports bodies on how to spot criminality before it festers and grows.

“I’m not a soccer expert,” Lord said. “My skills were in undercover policing. Policemen aren’t out there looking for match-fixers, they’re looking for terrorists or organized criminals.”

Because behind the so-called sporting corruption, Lord suggests, the authorities often find crime syndicates using sports for anything from money laundering to entrapment.

A key player in the fight against corruption in sports, Interpol, which is based in Lyon, in southern France, does not actually make arrests itself. It acts as a liaison between the law-enforcement agencies of its 190 member countries, providing communications and database assistance. Its data include 140,000 fingerprints, 110,000 DNA samples, 170,000 wanted criminals, and records of 32 million missing passports or ID cards.

But Noble, the Interpol secretary general since 2000, can send advisers to potential trouble spots at the request of member countries, as he did with 60 officers dispatched to assist South African border police in preventing known criminals from entering the country during the 2010 soccer World Cup.

Similarly, while London will police the Olympic Games this summer with the assistance of the British government and Metropolitan Police and the military, Interpol will deploy a team of specialists to help to check the passport details of everyone entering the country through the period of the Games.

Interpol has had some successes against international betting rings, as have other police forces. In recent years, operations involving the police in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam broke up major rings.

In South Korea last month, prosecutors said 16 professional volleyball players and two baseball players had been indicted in connection with match-fixing schemes.

In Italy, officials have made a number of arrests in recent months in connection with an ongoing investigation into match-fixing and illegal betting on soccer games. Several players have been among those arrested.

Although this investigation has for now not indicated links to Asian syndicates, the reach and resistance of the Hydra-like criminal networks is extensive and difficult to defeat.

A 2008 double murder in Newcastle, England, is a case in point. A young man and young woman, former university students from China, were murdered. The throat of Zhen Xing Yang was cut; the skull of his girlfriend, Xi Zhou, was smashed in three places. Before he died, investigators said, Yang was tortured.

The convicted murderer, an illegal immigrant from China named Guang Hui Cao, refused to give a motive for his crime. But detectives unearthed evidence that the victims were both involved with an Asian gambling ring that was relying on advance tips to bet on English soccer matches.

The two victims had apparently been recruiters acting for a Chinese syndicate that bet heavily on minor-league soccer games in the north of England. By exploiting a time lapse of one or two minutes between the play and the satellite broadcast in Asia, the police testified, the syndicate could place a winning bet on the next goal, throw-in, corner or free kick before they appeared to happen.

The culprit was arrested and sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. British detectives found no evidence linking him to soccer betting, but they did uncover plenty to implicate the victims. They have since said that, for want of resources, they have had to close the case.

Detectives had visited China but ran up against a wall of silence. The murderer maintains his silence behind bars, and some residents of Newcastle maintain theirs, too. Journalists and investigators of corruption in sports in general have often encountered a similar silence, even from informants hired to advise sports at the highest levels.”


Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
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