Commentary

Officials must do more than talk tough

The Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan 19, 2016.
The Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan 19, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

The initial response from the ATP to the match-fixing expose was a classic of mealy-mouthed flannel, with a dash of irritation. "It's always disappointing when stories like this come out just before a big event," the organisation said at the Australian Open.

As the day went on, and the media glare intensified, so the tone was altered to sound more grave but there was a general air - from administrators and leading players - that this was old news being recycled with a dramatic headline.

Yes, they said, bad stuff might be going on at the bottom of the game among players you have barely heard of in places you have never been (most of it some years ago), but do not worry, the show goes on at the main event in Melbourne.

And perhaps at a Grand Slam tournament, with the top players and the big earners who dream of title-winning backhands not backhanders, we can afford to look on with unshakeable belief. A game may be lost, but not chucked on orders from Russia and others.

No one doubts whether Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray have surrendered so much as a point, but that trust should not - must not - slip into complacency. If we have learnt anything over the past 18 months of dirty rotten scandal, it is that cheating is as old as sport itself but corruption - sport's real c-word - is more rife than ever. It feels like an epidemic.

Drugs and betting furores are terrible for business so we should not be shocked that, repeatedly, we discover that those who run the sport seek to bury bad news, sometimes so deep that it takes years of criminal investigations to unearth it.

We have learnt also that governing bodies - from the International Olympic Committee to Fifa, the International Cycling Union to the International Association of Athletics Federations and, yes, the tennis authorities too - cannot be trusted to police their own sports when they are so conflicted by their role as promoters. Their mantra is to sell "the product" to the world, harnessing ever-growing sponsorship and broadcast deals.

Drugs and betting furores are terrible for business so we should not be shocked that, repeatedly, we discover that those who run the sport seek to bury bad news, sometimes so deep that it takes years of criminal investigations to unearth it.

Among sports, tennis has never been ranked high for disclosure or transparency on disciplinary matters which is why, even if many of the allegations from the report by the BBC and BuzzFeed were dismissed as historic, there seemed more than enough in the story to send alarm bells ringing.

A central allegation was that an examination of 26,000 matches given to the sport's governing bodies in 2007 provided enough evidence to tackle players, but was not acted upon. Leaked documents and interviews indicated that 16 players who over the past decade have been ranked in the top 50 have been repeatedly flagged to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), but not sanctioned.

The tennis authorities were quick to insist that they took their responsibilities seriously but added that it is hard to turn rumour, suspicion or, sometimes, even compelling evidence into a conviction, thereby suggesting that no one really knows the scale of the problem. This journalism was valid in holding the issue up to the light.

The sport says that it has got its act together on match-fixing and the world certainly knows a lot more now about the TIU, a small band of British ex-policeman and others trying to root out the crooks.

Tennis says that its detection systems are unrecognisable since the notorious case of Nikolay Davydenko, then ranked No. 4 in the world, against Martin Vassallo Arguello, of Argentina, in an otherwise nondescript tournament in Sopot, Poland, in August 2007.

Davydenko should have been the overwhelming favourite but by the time of the first serve, remarkable betting patterns had made Arguello the man to beat. Even after Davydenko won the first set and led the second, big bets continued to be placed against the Russian. It emerged that US$7,310,429 (S$10,481,692) had been placed and accepted on the Betfair exchange, which suggested that someone, somewhere knew something.

When Davydenko retired and forfeited the match, Betfair took the unprecedented step of voiding all bets. Tennis did not have its own integrity unit - the TIU would come later - so it hired a team of investigators from the British Horseracing Authority.

They spent a year on the job but were unable to access Davydenko's mobile phone or phone records. The ATP subsequently revealed that there was not enough evidence, and neither player was charged.

Nigel Willerton, a former Metropolitan Police Officer with the Flying Squad who is the head of the TIU, insists that his organisation acts more robustly and quickly these days. The TIU adds that its £1.4 million (S$2.8 million) a year, to pay for five investigators and an administrator, is sufficient to do its business effectively.

Perhaps, but the TIU is funded by the tennis governing bodies and refers its findings to them for consideration before charges are pressed, which throws up obvious questions about the integrity of the process.

It fuels the growing argument for a world anti-corruption sports agency, fully independent with proper investigative powers to send its detectives unfettered into any murky corner. But it would require sport to show far more stomach to take on the cheats than it does now.

Few sporting agencies have a more important mission than the World Anti-Doping Agency. (But) its limitations are symptomatic of sport talking tough but not doing enough to hunt down the bad guys.

Tennis says that it has zero tolerance of match-fixing, and a number of convictions to prove it, but the air of annoyance among the top players in Australia that this story had been aired now is troubling. They should know that this story was less about matches being fixed than whether we trust those in charge to investigate all allegations effectively.

Recent history, in tennis and beyond, demands that we continually question the ability and willingness of sports' governing bodies to police their own towns.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Officials must do more than talk tough'. Print Edition | Subscribe