This may sound paradoxical. Surely it’s not losing but winning that takes skill and athleticism?
Technically, yes. But look at it this way: why would a player want to throw a match? For example, I’ve been playing tennis for 40 years without ever once losing on purpose.
The only possible reason for doing so would be the player or his friends betting heavily, and against the odds, on his opponent. Now, since I’m the only person who has ever bet on my tennis matches, the temptation to throw one has never arisen.
Only professionals find themselves in the privileged position of being able to cheat for money and, by the sound of it, quite a few take advantage of it. And it does take a lifelong effort to get to professional level.
A whistleblower has just released documents suggesting that 16 top-50 players have thrown matches over the last decade. The details haven’t yet been released, but in such cases detection is easy. Casinos know all about it, which is how they flush out blackjack card-counters.
What gives counters away is their irregular, seemingly irrational, betting patterns. When a croupier knows that the pack is stacked in favour of a player who then quadruples his bet, the dealer realises that the player knows it too. And the only way of knowing is to count cards.
Investigation specifically into tennis corruption started in 2008 and characteristically involved a Russian player, Nikolai Davydenko, then ranked fourth in the world.
The Russian was playing the 87th-ranked Vassallo Arguello and, sure enough, Davydenko was coasting. He easily won the first set and was up a break in the second.
Suddenly there came such an outburst of heavy betting on Arguello that after a while bookies had to stop taking any more bets. Davydenko promptly forfeited the match, and the winners tried to collect.
However, Betfair, an online betting exchange, voided $7,000,000 in bets, the first time it had ever done so, and informed the ATP that something dodgy was afoot. Most of the winners were traced to accounts in Russia, where sports corruption stands tall even against the backdrop of a generally criminalised economy.
An investigation was triggered, but the evidence was deemed insufficient and the player wasn’t suspended. However, if you’ll pardon a cliché, the absence of evidence isn’t always the evidence of absence. It’s certainly not proof of innocence, as anyone familiar with O.J. Simpson’s first trial will confirm.
At the time at least a dozen leading players came forward complaining that they had been approached by criminals with offers (or threats) to throw matches. Again most offers and threats were enunciated in guttural Russian accents.
The present scandal hasn’t yet reached a stage at which the culprits are named. However, it’s already known that Russian criminal syndicates are behind the current round of corruption as well.
In the good tradition of English empiricism, one must respond to the perennial underlying question: ‘So what are we going to do about it?’
That’s an easy question to answer. In the good, if relatively recent, tradition we’re going to cover up the corruption wherever possible and perhaps slap a few wrists that stick too far out to be covered up.
What should be done, apart from punishing those immediately guilty, is a different matter. First, a general comment.
Any social order ought to be arranged in a way that encourages the good parts of human nature, which most of us have, and discourages the bad parts, which we all possess.
Anyone who has ever visited a race course or a casino, looked at the people’s contorted faces and heard their demented shrieks will know that betting brings out the worst traits of human character. Such activities should be banned, or at least not widely legalised, as a matter of principle.
The argument that betting will then simply go underground doesn’t quite wash. Laws exist not only to penalise harmful activities but also to express society’s attitude to them. Some laws may not be enforced, some may not be enforceable, but they all serve a social purpose, either positive or negative.
Second, the global syphilitic contagion of Russian criminality must be checked.
Russia is the first major economy that’s founded, organised and operated almost entirely on Mafioso principles. Hence it befouls everything it touches, inflicting moral damage not only within its own domain but everywhere it’s allowed to operate.
England is one such place, with our government acting on the moral dictum first formulated by Emperor Vespasian: pecunia non olet. Money doesn’t smell.
We welcome dirty Russian money (and all serious Russian money is dirty) without being overly inquisitive about its source or excessively bothered by its attendant gifts, such as corruption and a spate of Mafia-style hits all over London and the home counties.
We weigh billions pumped into our economy against a dozen corpses here or there and find the balance acceptable. The heavy, cumulative moral damage isn’t allowed to tip the scales. This isn’t something we weigh any longer.
The ball is in our court, yet we don’t even try to hit it. Careful it doesn’t hit us, where it hurts.