What do we mean by sports corruption and how can we tackle it? Clue’s Head of Sport, Phil Suddick, breaks down the definitions, the role of data and technology in detection, and the importance of fighting for integrity.
Our motivations for enjoying sport are unique to us but the unpredictable nature of competitive sport is key to its attraction – for spectators and athletes alike.
Removing uncertainty is the goal of many forms of sports corruption. The manipulation of sports events to ensure an outcome for gain, be it monetary or personal, is an ingrained but growing problem that threatens to erode the reputation of the sporting world and its competitors. In a globalised, connected world, criminals – from individual actors to international organised crime groups – have greater means to exploit the integrity of sports at a cost of harm to organisations, society and individuals.
Sports corruption is too great a problem to beat in isolation. Upholding sports integrity today requires effective collaboration between sport governing bodies, public authorities, law enforcement, betting regulation and the gambling industry. It requires members to leverage new technologies to keep pace with criminals.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What is sports corruption?
- What is the impact of corruption on sports?
- How does technology facilitate sports corruption?
- How can sports corruption be detected?
- Using technology to detect corruption in sport
- The role of investigations in upholding sports integrity
- Can corruption be removed from sports?
What is sports corruption?
Sports corruption comes in numerous forms from match-fixing, doping, illegal gambling or bribery. Ranging from individual cases to systemic campaigns, corruption in sports could include the generation of high profits or money laundering by organised crime groups through match-fixing, the manipulation of outcomes for sporting reasons such as to avoid relegation or, in the case of doping, to meet the pressure to perform consistently at a high standard.
Definitions of sports corruption
The Council of Europe’s Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competition (Macolin Convention) offers one of the most widely used definitions of sports event manipulation at international level:
“Manipulation of sport competitions means an intentional arrangement, act or omission aimed at an improper alteration of the result or the course of a sport competition in order to remove all or part of the unpredictable nature of the aforementioned sport competition with a view to obtaining an undue advantage for oneself or for others.”
Another well-thumbed definition comes from Gorse & Chadwick’s Conceptualising Corruption in Sport paper:
“Corruption in sport is understood as any illegal, immoral or unethical activity that attempts to deliberately distort the outcome of a sporting contest for the personal material gain of one or more parties involved in that activity.”
What forms does sports corruption take?
While not definitive and not necessarily conducted in isolation, corruption in sports can be broadly divided into four categories:
Match-fixing: The manipulation of competition results for monetary, personal or sporting gain by athletes, sporting officials and other non-athletes such as referees, or athletes and officials. We’re including spot-fixing under this term, which refers to the manipulation of a specific aspect of an event unrelated to the final result but for which a betting market exists (such as timing the first corner kick of a football match).
Example: In 2022, the ITIA banned six Spanish tennis players from the sport after they were convicted of criminal charges related to match-fixing, which it called an “important moment for tennis in its fight against corruption” and “one of the most significant infiltrations of tennis by organised crime we have seen.”
The ITIA imposed sanctions on the players, with the highest-ranking player Marc Fornell Mestres banned from tennis for 22 years and six months and fined $250,000 (with $200,000 suspended).
Misuse of inside information for betting purposes: Using information that is not in the public domain as a basis for betting. This also includes an individual betting on an event that they are participating in.
Example: In 2003, National Basketball Association (NBA) referee Tim Donaghy started betting on basketball games he was personally officiating. Gamblers known to him caught wind of the scheme and began making large bets of their own based on Donaghy’s ‘picks’ which included information about player’s physical conditions and player-referee relations that he obtained as an NBA referee.
The illegal betting scheme led to a large criminal conspiracy in which millions of dollars changed hands. Donaghy was eventually sentenced to 15 months in prison for his participating in the gambling scandal.
Doping: The use of prohibited medications, drugs, or treatments by athletes with the intention of improving athletic performance.
Example: In 2016, the head of an anti-doping lab in Moscow blew the whistle on a state-run initiative to provide performance-enhancing drugs to Russian athletes at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. The sophisticated operation involved the intelligence service replacing urine from ‘tamper-proof’ samples bottles. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found evidence of the scheme.
In 2015, professional Counter Strike player Kory Friesen admitted to his team Cloud9 using psychostimulant Adderall during a major Electronic Sports League Competition, which had a prize of £160,000.
Bribery: The manipulation of a decision-making process, such as host venue for important competitions, allocation of rights, or nomination for positions, through an illicit exchange.
Example: In 1998, the world heard of allegations of widespread corruption within the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Charges included that IOC members had received various bribes (including cash, business favours and even college tuition for members’ children) from other members to advance the bid of Salt Lake City as the site of the 2002 Winter Games. Accusations also extended to previous bid committees.
The IOC expelled six members while others resigned. The following year, the IOC announced a 50-point reform package.
What is the impact of corruption on sports?
Sports corruption casts a shadow over competitive sport’s core values of fair play, respect, uncertainty and trust in the rules. This has a wide-ranging impact, undermining trust and engagement among spectators, athletes and participating organisations.
Impact of sports corruption on business
Sport’s entertainment value is the main driver of its income. Mass appeal by a passionate and engaged audience provides an incredibly powerful platform for media and marketing opportunities.
Corruption scandals undermine sport credibility which can negatively impact its entertainment value and therefore television audiences and in-person attendance. This is felt most in the financial health of federations, clubs and athletes. It can lead to the withdrawal of sponsorship agreements over brand reputation concerns, and lead to a reduction in interest among young athletes entering sport.
Impact of sports corruption on society
Corruption in sports negatively affects the social, health and educational benefits that sport brings. Interest in sport is heavily influenced by inspirational sporting role models and the credibility of sporting institutions.
More directly, corrupt individuals may detract funds from being invested into society through sporting programmes. There are alleged cases of grants intended for the development of youth sports within developing countries, for example, being redistributed as bribes connected to the awarding of broadcast or marketing rights.
Impact of sports corruption on athletes & participants
Rarely are athletes motivated to pursue a career in professional sport by cheating their way to wealth. While athletes, coaches, referees and other participants may be involved in or even instigate match-fixing or doping programs, individuals are most often coerced and groomed into participating in the criminal activity which threatens and ultimately puts an end to their sporting careers.
Similarly, an athlete taking performance-enhancing drugs may not have given clear consent, but may be subject to abuse of authority by coaching staff. Not every participant involved in a sports corruption scandal may be willing or even stand to gain from it, but all can be held accountable. Victims of sports corruption can certainly be found on the field.
How does technology facilitate sports corruption?
Outside of match-fixing for sporting reasons, the betting market has historically been a crucial instrument for criminals to generate income by gambling on pre-determined results. The rise of online gambling and explosion of global smartphone access and connectivity has made betting more accessible than ever before. The betting market has responded, making a wider pool of sports and leagues available across legal and illegal markets.
Borders and time zones are now irrelevant in today’s global betting market. Organised crime groups can quickly move their operations different countries in pursuit of favourable local regulations or enforcement, or switch to betting on sports with less scrupulous sports governance.
Blockchain and cryptocurrencies have been widely adopted in the betting industry for payments and to facilitate the movement of funds. Cryptocurrencies can facilitate illegal betting through the avoidance of betting operators’ anti-money laundering and know-your-customer (KYC) procedures, as well as providing instant and anonymous cross-border transactions.
Illegal bookmakers can leverage cryptocurrencies to ‘offshore’ criminal processes, settle payments and pay employees.
In recent years, we have seen the emergence of technological doping, the name coined for the use of performance-enhancing technology. A famous example came in 2019 with sub-two-hour marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge’s use of Nike Vaporfly 4% prototype running shoes, which were ruled by The World Athletics to have provided an “unfair advantage” in running efficiency.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has recognised the threat posed by technological doping, but it is at the discretion of independent sporting bodies to allow or ban new technology is a sport.
How can sports corruption be detected?
Sports governing bodies rely on several reporting mechanisms which are designed to receive reports of wrongdoing, whether they are perceived or actual. These mechanisms include:
- Freephone telephone hotlines
- App or text-focused reporting systems
- Dedicated email addresses
- Face-to-face reporting, (i.e., contacting a dedicated integrity officer).
These mechanisms are generally designed to be as safe, accessible and efficient as possible for individuals most at risk of corruption, such as athletes and sports officials. However, their uptake relies on the success of promotion and awareness campaigns.
Nonetheless, if reports are handled effectively, sporting organisations can build trust and confidence among those closest to corruption risk and receive necessary intelligence early enough to intervene.
To support the reporting of suspected corruption, sports organisations will often introduce regulations or codes of conduct which require their members to report acts of corruption by obligation. To encourage reporting, some sports governing bodies will offer an amnesty from disciplinary action for the belated disclosure of information known by players and other participants. This approach can build trust in the reporting system among individuals concerned that they will be sanctioned for technically reaching regulations. Individuals involved in corruption may be offered reduced sanctions if they come forward with useful information.
Individuals with intelligence relating to suspected corruption may not make reports due to fear of retaliation and ostracization – or a sense of loyalty to their team and fear of putting it at risk of sanction. Sports organisations can ensure identities are kept confidential during investigations, until a trial or disciplinary hearing. Sports organisations must demonstrate that reporting corruption can be done safely and that it directly results in improving sports integrity.
Using technology to detect corruption in sport
Sports governing bodies and other organisations involved in sports integrity are now increasingly leveraging innovative solutions to become more proactive in recognising suspected corruption. Given that the betting market is a crucial vehicle in the execution of match-fixing, betting data provides rich and valuable (if highly voluminous and complex) intelligence that can be used to identify suspicious activity and trigger investigations.
Available technology includes solutions that can automatically detect competition manipulation by spotting anomalies, trends and patterns in betting data; in-game statistical analysis tools; and advanced intelligence tools like Clue used to manage complex data across cases more effectively, identify early warning signs, and surface links and trends between cases.
Betting data monitoring
Match-fixing attempts may not be focused on the outcome of a contest, but on a single point, goal or decision. Monitoring betting activity has become one of the most important ways of identifying suspicious activity in sports. Betting market monitoring works by identifying discrepancies between actual and expected odds, which can signal irregular or suspicious bets.
If this activity is reported before an event takes place, organisations such as sports governing bodies have an opportunity to proactively intervene to stop manipulation taking place. Or it can provide the intelligence for a wider investigation which may uncover related events.
Detected by sophisticated algorithms, anomalous betting patterns are increasingly the first warning sign of potential corruption in sport. As the global betting market becomes increasingly accessible and comprises an ever-widening variety of lower-level sports leagues, betting monitoring technology is now necessary to identify potential wrongdoing which could otherwise go unnoticed in the ‘noise’.
While betting data can provide a catalyst for preventative action or investigations, it’s important to note that analytical information must be supported by “other, different and external elements pointing in the same direction,” according to the Court of Arbitration for Sports.
In-game statistical analysis
Recent developments in in-game statistical analysis can reveal data-led predictions of expected performance around aspects of sports competitions, such as expectations of number of shots on target, yellow cards, number of passes. Significant deviations can provide an indication of possible suspicious activity.
However, given the uncertainty of sports events in general, in-game statistical analysis remains a developing area and information is often only considered significant when placed alongside other supporting evidence.
Case management software
Where previously sports integrity investigators would have relied on spreadsheets and manual analysis, case management systems can bring powerful efficiencies to investigations and better leverage growing data volumes available to surface suspicious activity.
Case management and intelligence software such as Clue is being embraced used by leading sports governing bodies and sports technology companies to manage and enhance vast data-led cases and protect the sports ecosystem. These tools can identify links between intelligence such as match records, financial records, athlete performance data and personnel files, enabling faster and more effective resolution of existing cases, and better early intervention of new ones.
APIs can link systems to other data sources, so all available data intelligence can be explored and analysed through one platform and securely shared with other organisations, such as law enforcement.
The role of investigations in upholding sports integrity
Upholding the spirit of fair play is the responsibility of those participating, first and foremost. Sports integrity relies on the ethical conduct of athletes, officials and participants. Sports governing bodies aim to ensure that regulations are upheld so that the sporting environments they oversee remain transparent, safe and accountable.
Effectively protecting sports integrity requires investigations to be made into reports or instances of suspected corruption and these often require the collaboration of several different parties, such as sports governing bodies, law enforcement, betting companies and betting monitoring services.
These are some of the organisations involved in investigations into sports corruption and the roles they play within investigations.
Where corruption in sports has involved a crime being committed, law enforcement such as local police forces or the sporting units of Europol and Interpol, may take responsibility for the investigation. Resources available to law enforcement authorities can exceed those available to sports organisations.
However, successful investigations into sports corruption by law enforcement are limited. This can be due to inefficiencies in evidence gathering or data sharing, lack of ability to analyse data or lack of prioritisation. Meanwhile, criminals involved in sports corruption are innovative and adaptable and are frequently able to keep ahead of law enforcement to evade detection. Global access to the betting market also means criminals can quickly enter new jurisdictions, which adds further complexities to investigation by law enforcement.
Sports governing bodies
Many major sports governing bodies have developed their own investigation capabilities, which include their own sports integrity departments staffed by investigators who may be from law enforcement backgrounds and be experienced in undertaking complex, multi-jurisdictional investigations. The availability of advanced investigations and intelligence tools are enhancing the investigative power of these teams.
Internal investigations are supported by regulations or code of conduct for participants of sports and may have rules which enable investigators to access data, such as bank statements or electronic devices. Rules will be enforced by penalties such as fines, suspensions and bans.
Betting monitoring services
Betting monitoring services offer systems that monitor competitions in main sports offered for pre-match and in-play betting, such as football, tennis and basketball. Sophisticated algorithms can detect irregularities in betting activity with a low margin of error. Monitoring reports can be a powerful component in determining suspicious activity and can provide evidence to support disciplinary action against an individual or organisation involved in match-fixing.
Betting monitoring platforms such as GLMS and IBIA are associations which facilitate the sharing of sports betting information, including analysis and integrity reports. Membered by betting companies, they serve stakeholders through strategic and legal input, engagement in policymaking and by facilitating the notification and cross-border sharing of data related to suspicious sports betting patterns.
Can corruption be removed from sports?
Upholding sports integrity is a mountainous challenge. Preventing corruption in sports requires strong regulation, proactive and seamless collaboration, effective monitoring and efficient investigations. Though not easy to achieve, especially in unison, these attributes combined can provide sports good odds of reducing the occurrence of corruption and desire to facilitate manipulation.
True prevention of sports corruption requires education of athletes at a young age. To improve the integrity of sport in a long-lasting and sustainable way we must find a way to instil sport’s values of fair play, respect, uncertainty and trust deeply in the professional athletes of the future.