It came as a surprise yesterday when an investigation by BuzzFeed and the BBC unearthed widespread match-fixing in professional tennis. There was talk of shady hotel room meetings, international gambling syndicates, and massive bribes. This morning Novak Djokovic legitimized the reports, admitting he'd declined an offer of $200,000 to throw a match in 2007. VICE called up sports gambling expert Dr. Steve Georgakis from the University of Sydney to find out just how easy it is to fix a match.
VICE: Were you surprised at all when news broke about the match-fixing scandal?
Dr. Steve Georgakis: Surprised that match-fixing takes place in tennis? Of course not. I suspect it happens in all commercialized sports.
If you're a top athlete though, it's not much money to potentially throw your career away, right?
I must be honest—I don't know the earnings of the top players around the world, but they make a lot of money out of tennis. But that's the top 100 or 50... There are an innumerable number of tennis players out there who are very good, but they aren't making very much money. The temptation then is, if I'm not going to get caught and I'm going to make a bit more money losing than winning, then why don't I just lose?
Why is it so easy to fix a tennis match?
Unlike a lot of other team sports, such as rugby league, or netball, or football, tennis is a one-versus-one sport. It's a lot easier to manipulate the outcome of tennis because there's only one individual involved.
It's also got something to do with the nature of the sport. During a match you can come off injured, or you can say you've got a sore tummy on very, very crucial moments that effect the outcome of the match. People can make a number of unforced errors.
This investigation is pretty unique in that it unearthed match-fixing through an algorithm. How are people usually caught?
It's very difficult to pick. If you have a look at the people who have been caught for match-fixing in the past it's really been taped conversations where they have gone out and said this is what they are going to do. Of course, there will always be a part of this that has to do with the nature of sports gambling around the world.
Sports gambling is what your research is about. Tell me a little bit about how this works.
It's very hard to pin someone on match-fixing. I suspect it's only really been in the last few years with the emergence of online and exotic-type betting that [fixing] has proliferated. A lot of the fixes may not even be about winning. They can be about something within a particular match. That's called "spot-fixing."
It works because you have a number of syndicates out there who are very keen to make money on sports and, of course, tennis is a sport that's played everyday around the world. A lot of the games take place in championships where the tournaments are not that important or they are exhibition matches. There's sometimes not much scrutiny. Sport, including tennis, is in bed with the sports gambling agencies and big business so it's only natural that there's going to be corruption.
The influence from sports gambling companies—do you think that explains why tennis authorities didn't act on reports of match-fixing?
It's not only big gambling companies but I'm sure it does have a lot to do with it. At the Australian Open this year we see that [bookmaker] William Hill is one of the sponsors. The real issue is that in a very commercialized sporting world anything negative is bad for business. So if you suspect the athletes of anything negative, that's bad for the sport.
So you think it's not just something that's unique to tennis?
That's why we saw the International Athletics Federation go out of its way to completely deny any issues with doping. The same goes for sports gambling. Could you imagine in the interview a couple of days ago if the tennis authorities said, yep, they have been reported to us. That's a signal to spectators that the sport is rigged and it's bad for business.
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