While the 2012 Olympic Games are special in many ways, one aspect stands out. This is the first time that organizers have geared up to prevent any of the 302 events from being corrupted by the global explosion of online sports gambling.
In March, the International Olympic Committee began an effort to track the Internet gaming industry for signs of unusual betting patterns that might indicate whether athletes or IOC officials are being bribed to “fix” a match or alter aspects of an event during “live” betting.
“There is a new danger coming up that almost all countries have been affected by – and that is corruption, match-fixing and illegal gambling,” says IOC president Jacques Rogge.
His words should serve as a warning to the many American states that are eager to launch Internet gambling: The integrity of both amateur and professional sports can be put in jeopardy with the increasing ease – and corruptibility – of online betting by organized crime.
Already in Asia many sports leagues have collapsed after fans learned of players or referees being on the take. And in Europe, which is the global hub of Internet gaming, regulators are scrambling to set down new rules to curb such fraud.
Worldwide, at least 308 sports matches were fixed in 2011. That number has risen as sports betting has nearly tripled worldwide over the past decade, driven largely by the Internet.
“Match-fixing is perhaps the most serious threat to sport today,” says Friedrich Stickler, president of the European Lotteries. He estimates a quarter of sports-betting operators are illegal.
In the United States, Internet gambling was outlawed by Congress in 2006, but many states, such as New Jersey and Nevada, contend that the law remains unclear about their ability to set up commercial, private online gaming strictly for state residents.
Those states need to take a cue from Europe if they open the door to online gambling for pro sports. The European Commission announced in June that the risk of fraud in sports competition has been exacerbated by online betting, posing a risk to the integrity of sports. An estimated 7 million Europeans now gamble online, many of them younger men who follow sports.
The London Olympics are the first time that bettors can wager on all 26 sports in the Games. The most popular event is the 100-meter dash, which will likely see a close contest between Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.
IOC officials say they don’t expect any bribing of athletes but that even one case would cast a shadow over the fairness of the Games. The Olympics are only now getting on top of doping in sports even as officials try to monitor the influence of Internet gambling.
Europe’s gambling regulators are hindered by a dependency of each government on official gambling revenues. But they also see the danger to sports if the new industry isn’t reined in.
“We have to consider minimum rules on conflicts of interest, perhaps with a ban on certain types of gambling or the creation of more rigorous control systems,” says Michel Barnier, the European commissioner for the Internal Market.
In America, states need to cool their ardor for private Internet gambling, especially if it includes sports, until both the IOC and Europe figure this out. An industry that promotes the dubious notion of luck isn’t compatible with sports, which is driven by ideals of merit and fairness.