Alan Hubbard: Is there a major sport left that hasn't been tainted by corruption in one form or another?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Alan HubbardLance Armstrong opted for Oprah Winfrey when he decided to come clean – well, sort of. Fellow American Hulk Hogan, now 59 (remember him?) curiously elected to tell all on a British television afternoon chat show.

He too confessed, also after denying it for years, that he had taken drugs as a wrestler.

Moreover, he confirmed, surprise, surprise, that the grip-and-grapple game was faked. Or, as he euphemistically preferred to put it, the results were – and presumably still are – "pre-determined".

We all knew that unlike the Greco Roman stuff they've just jocked off the Olympic programme, WWE was a put-up job. Show business with fake blood.

As was pro wrestling as seen on TV here back in the days when Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks bounced off each other's bellies. All a bit of a laugh, really.

Hulk Hogan 130213Hulk Hogan confessed to drugs use on a British television afternoon chat show

What isn't is the revelation that The Hulk and those who grunted and groaned with him are by no means alone in practising the art of sporting deception.

For it transpires that European football has been riddled with match-fixing and that sport in Australia is as bent as a boomerang.

And this, I suspect, is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

This week I reached a certain vintage in my life that permits me to exercise even more cynicism about certain elements of sport than I have in the past.

I now wonder if almost anything we watch is for real.

Forget the old adage "seeing is believing" because actually it isn't. Not anymore. Nor has it been for years.

In  the past half century footballers and cricketers have gone to jail for attempting to rig results, jockeys have been convicted for pulling horses, snooker has snookered itself and as for doping, well, where do you begin?

More pertinently, where will it all end?

Ask yourselves this. Is there a major sport left that hasn't been tainted by corruption in one form or another, whether by betting, (illegal or otherwise), drugs, cheating, bribery or organised crime?

Of course, so massive are the monetary rewards for winning (or in certain instances deliberately not winning) that it can be no surprise that sport is subjected to just about every malpractice known to man.

london 2012 anti doping lab 130213Any GP will tell you how simple it is to avoid detection of certain substances because of masking agents

Last summer we celebrated sport at its zenith, with the London Olympics.

All that glittered really was gold, with just a smattering of subsequent positive dope tests, though not a Briton among them.

But do we seriously believe that our glorious Games really were as clean as a whistle?

I think not. Some cheats still prospered at London 2012 because they knew how to beat the system.

Any GP will tell you how relatively simple it is to avoid detection of certain substances because masking agents are as prevalent these days as football agents.

Sadly, the poachers remain one step ahead of the gamekeepers.

This is now particularly evident Down Under where the Australian Crime Commission says that drugs are in widespread use across a multitude of sports, aided and abetted by dodgy medics, coaches and support staff dealing with organised crime networks.

Banned human growth hormones in rugby and Australian rules are at the heart of the case.

It certainly makes you wonder about both rugby codes. Look at the size of some of those muscled mammoths in the scrum and ask whether it is all done by press-ups.

So potentially alarming are the implications of the Australian scandal for sport in Britain that Sports Minister Hugh Robertson plans to fly out to meet his Aussie counterpart to discuss the situation.

Significantly, Robertson's portfolio also embraces the gambling industry, and, leaving the drugs issue aside, betting is at the malevolent force in most other areas of corruption.

Chris Eaton 130213Chris Eaton says that sport "is now under unprecedented attack from criminals"

Chris Eaton, a former head of security for FIFA, now the director of sport integrity for the Qatar-based ICSS (International Centre for Sport Security) had this to say following Europol's investigation into the criminal network fixing of hundreds of matches.

"Sport is now under unprecedented attack from criminals and opportunists who conspire to manipulate the results of competitions around the world to fraudulently win the tens and hundreds of millions that is gambled on sport around the world every day, with the vast majority of this money being invested into the black and grey betting markets of South East Asia."

He is pointing the finger at Singapore, where illegal betting on sport is a national pastime in a tiny country that has no sporting history to speak of other than successfully staging the last Youth Olympics.

The Singaporean manipulators invested at least €16 million (£14 million/$22 million) in betting to reap a €8.5 million (£7.3 million/$11.4 million) profit at the cost of a "mere" €2.7 million (£2.3 million/$3.6 million) in illicit payments. The highest bribe paid, as far as Europol knows, was €140,000 (£121,000/$190,000) to fix one game.

Payments of up to €100,000 (£86,000/$134,000) per game were not uncommon.

Europol's findings involved some 425 officials and players and 380 matches in some 15 countries.

These included Champions League and World Cup qualifiers, among them a Champions League match between Liverpool and Hungarian side Debrecen, though there is no suggestion that the British club was implicated.

Debrecen 130213A Champions League match between Liverpool and Hungarian side Debrecen is said to be involved in the match-fixing scandal

"This is a sad day for European football," said Rob Wainwright, head of Europol, describing "match-fixing activity on a scale we have not seen before".

Sepp Blatter will need more than his favoured feather duster to sweep this one under the carpet.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, someone who more often than not brings sanity to the mad, mad world of modern football, describes it as a "tsunami" for a sport he says is "full of legends who are also cheats".

As Armstrong has shown, this tsunami engulfs more than just the football field.

Last summer we even had an example of Olympic skulduggery when four badminton doubles pairs were sensationally disqualified from the London 2012 Games for deliberately throwing their matches.

It occurred when China's world champion duo and pairs from South Korea and Indonesia purposely lost points in their final group matches to earn a favourable draw in the last 16.

And the sport had some previous, with a spate of incidents each year on the world tour.

Zhang Ning 130213Li Yongbo admitted asking Zhou Mi to yield to Zhang Ning (pictured) in the Athens 2004 semi-final 

As far as the Olympics go, the highest-profile case remains Athens 2004 when Li Yongbo, China's head coach, admitted to ordering a player to throw a tie, improving chances of gold.

It occurred during the women's singles semi-final when Li decided that Zhang Ning would have a better shot at winning the final against a non-Chinese opponent rather than her opponent Zhou Mi.

When a sport like badminton is bogus, what hope is there?

Surely, it can't be long before even beach volleyball becomes as much a charade as WrestleMania.

Want to bet?

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.
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