Professional tennis match-fixing allegations: What do they tell us about corruption in the sport?

This post was contributed by Dr Andy Harvey of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre

On Tuesday 19 January, File on 4, a BBC Radio current affairs programme, revealed details of a BBC/Buzzfeed investigation into allegations of match-fixing in professional tennis, a story that had been trailed the previous days across global media outlets. The crux of the allegations was that sixteen players who had been ranked in the top 50 were suspected of taking part in fixed matches. Two of the suspects were alleged to be Grand Slam doubles winners. Almost as serious as the claims that senior players might have been involved in match-fixing was the suggestion that the tennis authorities had been given the details of those players but had suppressed the information. It is an allegation that the ATP, the men’s tour organising body, vigorously denies.

Tennis 1

In this blog I focus on two aspects of the claims in order to analyse them in terms of what we know already about match-fixing in general.

First, I look at a notorious match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello in 2007, asking how the way the fix is alleged to have taken place compares to what we know about how fixing is actually achieved. Second, I consider the sums of money that players claim to be offered to fix games and ask whether these sums add up in practice. It should be noted that there have already been questions raised elsewhere about the programme’s over-reliance of suspicious betting patterns as a sole indicator of match-fixing.

In short, betting irregularities on their own do not prove a fix has taken place.

The beginning: The Sopot incident

The starting point of the investigation into match-fixing in professional tennis was the 4th round match of a tournament in August 2007 in Sopot, Poland, between the Russian, Nikolay Davydenko, then the world number 4, and the much more lowly Argentinian, Martin Vassallo Arguello. It was game that Davydenko should have won easily but all the big money, more than £3 million with Betfair alone, was going on Arguello. Even when Davydenko was leading by one set, the bets, from a few accounts in Russia, kept coming on for Arguello. When Davydenko retired hurt in the third set, thus forfeiting the match, Betfair took the drastic step of voiding the bets and repaid the stakes due to their suspicions of fraud.

What should we make of this incident and what it says about match-fixing? As I see it, the incident is a big surprise in the way it played out and smacks of an amateur operation, if indeed there was any actual fix at all, something Davydenko denies, and for which an internal tennis investigation found no firm evidence.

Firstly, tennis is an easy game to fix without resorting to retiring hurt. Its unique competitive structure means that a player is still in with a chance to win a match until the final point is won. Games that ebb and flow dramatically within the space of a few points are essential to the appeal of tennis as a sport. It is perfect for fixing as a player can be one set and a break (or more) up but still go on to lose the match.

It is this pattern that the BBC programme exposed as most likely to attract suspicious bets, but which the betting monitoring systems that bookmakers deploy are adept at identifying. In the Sopot incident, perhaps the gamblers were unaware of the monitoring systems because it is naive to bet so heavily on the lower player to win as such bets will inevitably raise suspicions. More sophisticated fixers ensure that the weaker player loses the game, betting heavily on the favourite, as this would be a more normal bet. Fixers value certainty of outcome above all else. The price is of secondary concern.

Another priority for fixers is to be able to place bets in a way that does not arouse suspicions. For that to happen, they need to be able to hide their money among the rest of the punters cash. Unusually large sums going on a weaker player in a minor tournament simply does not add up. A possible explanation may be that they were able to persuade (by threat, bribe or other means) Davydenko, but not Aguello, to lose the match and so this was their only course of action in this case.

The great thing about tennis from the fixer’s point of view is that you only need to persuade one person to lose the game and your fix is on. Compare that to football where multiple people normally need to be involved and we can see how tennis is a prime target for fixers. But, according to the BBC/Buzzfeed investigation, it is Arguello who they claim to have voicemail recordings from his phone that allegedly link him to other possible fixed matches. All in all the Sopot incident is a strange one that raises more questions than it answers and does not fit well into a more expected pattern of match-fixing. My instinct is that it was simply a crude and unsophisticated attempt at a fix and perhaps that is why it was identified in the first place, as a more successful fix would not have been so easily spotted.

A history of fixing

Tennis 2A further interesting revelation from the programme was the amount of money that players claim to have been offered to fix a match. Or more pertinently, the disparity of offers that have been made. Before the programme had aired, World Number One, Novak Djokovic maintained that he had been offered £110,000 to fix a match ten years ago. In the programme, banned Austrian player, Daniel Koellerer stated he had been offered between $50,000 (approx £35,000) and $100,000 (approx £70,000) to throw matches. One way to assess if these figures ring true is to compare them to the amounts of profits that are said to accrue from fixing. The programme stated that a Russian group of gamblers won £250,000 from 5 games, while a Sicilian group won £650,000 from 12 games and a group from north Italy won the same amount from 28 fixed games.

If the profit figures are accurate then $50,000 – $200,000 (approx £35,000 – £140,000) to fix just one match would seem excessive. A number of possible explanations spring to mind. It could be that those being offered the bribe are exaggerating the amounts for some reason – perhaps to burnish their honesty credentials as they insist they turned it down without a second thought. Or, it could be that the offer was a lure by the fixer to attempt to corrupt the player who would find that the actual amount paid was significantly less, because once he is corrupted he is under the strict control of the gamblers to fix future games.

Either way, these figures stand in stark contrast to the €2000 (approx £1500) that a Spanish former player and coach, who wanted to remain anonymous, claimed was offered to one of his players to fix a match. The coach was also keen to emphasise that fixers try to create a climate of fear around players to do their bidding. Of course, if a fixer can obtain the result he wants without having to pay a player or official then that is the most profitable outcome.

Comparing fixing in other sports

If we take a known case of match-fixing in another sport, cricket, as an example, we might be able to make sense of these divergent claims. In the notorious case of the January 2000 Test match against England at Centurion Park, South African captain, Hansie Cronje persuaded his English opponents to take part in a fifth day contest by forfeiting an innings each after the middle three days of the Test had been washed out. According to Cronje’s testimony to the subsequent King Commission into corruption in cricket he was offered 500,000 Rand (approx £50,000) and a gift of his choice to fix the result. Having delivered the fix he was actually paid 50,000 Rand (approx £5,000) and a leather jacket.

The Cronje case suggests that the high sums alleged to be offered to Djokovic and Koellerer are probably no more than lures to draw a player in with promises of wealth that will not materialise. The €2000 mentioned by the Spanish coach is probably a truer reflection of the likely return that a player could expect on a single fixed match in an ordinary tournament where the betting market would not be large enough to conceal large sums of money.

Related to the possible sums of money on offer to fix games, is the earnings of those players. While those at the very top of tennis are all multi-millionaires, it is not necessary to go too far down the ladder to see how earnings fall off very quickly below the elite group. Take the case of the current world number 220, Michal Przysiezny, who reached a highest ranking of 57 in 2014. According to official ATP statistics, after turning pro in 2001 his career earnings over the past fifteen years have amounted to $1,305,000 (approx £940,000), or about £63,000 per year. The ITF, the tennis governing body, estimated that in 2013 the average expenses (excluding coaching fees) were $39,000 (approx. £27,000) per year, and that the break even ranking for men (i.e. the point where income equals expenses) was 336 on the men’s tour.

The economics are plain to see: earning a living simply by playing tennis is hard to do. Such circumstances are ripe for exploitation by fixers who claim to offer easy money to those struggling to get by. Addressing the inequity of rewards in tennis should be a priority for the tennis authorities. It is an objective that some players at the top, including Roger Federer, believe is necessary to protect the game from corruption.

In summation…

The allegations concerning match-fixing in tennis are serious, and it is true there have been many rumours circulating around the game for a number of years. However, without more compelling evidence to show that fixes have definitely taken place that go beyond mere suspicious patterns of betting and anecdotal stories from players as to how much they were offered to throw games, we should remain cautious before drawing firm conclusions as to the extent of corruption in the game.

But caution should not be read as complacency and the tennis governing bodies, who have been accused of paying insufficient attention to the potential problem of fixing in the sport, should now ensure that resources are prioritised to protect a sport that captivates its followers through its compelling gladiatorial competitive structure.

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About the author

Dr Andy Harvey has undertaken research into match-fixing in sport for a number of years and is currently working with professional footballer associations on strategies to protect the sport against fixers. He has published articles on match-fixing and has appeared numerous times on television and radio to discuss match-fixing in sport. He can be contacted by email at andrew.harvey@bbk.ac.uk

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“Digital ignorance is not bliss”

This post was contributed by Elena Georgalla, Work Readiness Programme Officer at Birkbeck

Google logoA key aim of the Work Readiness Programme, Birkbeck’s innovative partnership with J.P. Morgan, is to inspire students to enter the digital industry. On the evening of January 14th, roughly 50 Birkbeck students were converted (!) with the help of Frederic Kalinke, data-driven marketer, former Googler and founder of Converted, a digital marketing school that teaches the inner workings of Google.

Frederic’s motto is simple and compelling: Digital ignorance is not bliss. Google has transformed business as well as the way we work, interact, shop, learn and communicate. To not understand how Google works or what it can actually do is to not understand modern business. Considering the extent of Google’s presence in our lives, this lack of understanding of its inner workings won’t do any favours to anyone seeking to start a business or pursuing a career in anything from advertising to journalism and from law to consulting. Having a good grasp of digital marketing is particularly important for students who are deciding on their first job or for those who are contemplating a career move.

Understanding Google

Entitled “Understanding Google”, the workshop started with three warm-up exercises which invited students to reflect on the reasons why the internet is such a powerful tool for business. Frederic then invited the students to dive straight into Google, to understand the reasons that led to its creation, its mission statement, its dynamic business model and the importance of data-driven decision-making.

The rest of the workshop introduced the students to Search Engine Marketing, Display Advertising, Video Advertising and Analytics. In fact, using a Powerpoint presentation and a whiteboard, Frederic explored 37 key terms, including Demand Fulfilment; SEM (Search Engine Marketing); Organic; AdWords; PPC (Pay Per Click); SEO (Search Engine Optimisation); Off-page Optimisation; Anchor Text; Contextual Targeting; YouTube and Google Analytics.

The workshop concluded with some valuable career advice applicable beyond digital marketing. As put by a student: “the workshop covered topics that are very interesting not only for those who want to pursue a career in digital marketing, but also for everyday users of Google”.

The importance of digital literacy

For us behind the Work Readiness Programme, it is important to highlight initiatives such as Converted. Educating students about the digital opportunity goes beyond increasing their employability. Digital literacy opens doors to opportunities alternative to the standardised graduate packages that fill the milkround.

Equally, it enables students to be critical and to evaluate different options across sectors. What might appear as a linear career path may seem initially appealing from a career security perspective but a few years into the job one can easily find herself stuck. Finance and law are often guilty of that. Finally, as the digital industry is fast-paced and fast-evolving and it is engulfing all other sectors, from transport to retail, healthcare and hospitality, a solid grounding in digital marketing is an advantage in any sector. Google has been, and will remain for a long time, at the forefront of that. Frederic could not have made a stronger case. So by the end of his workshop, we were all converted!

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Kebab and Mezze in London – A preview to Late@BBK

This post was contributed by Emeritus Professor in Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck. This text first appeared in The Middle East in London Volume 9 – Number 5 October – November 2013.

Prof Zubaida will be in conversation with Dr Alex Colas on the topic of ‘A Life Through Food’ on 25 February at Late@BBK – a special event open to staff and students of Birkbeck’s School of Social Sciences, Philosophy and History. Find out more here

Mantoo

Mantoo

A recent survey revealed that 41% of British households have hummus in their fridge (Guardian Shortcuts Blog 7 August 2013). This is an astonishing index of the degree to which Middle Eastern food, alongside curry and other selected items of world cuisine have been globalised, and in the process, transformed.

Taboule, essentially a Levantine parsley salad dotted with bulgar/burghul grains and tomatoes, is widely eaten in France, only transformed to a couscous salad. Supermarket shelves display a wide range of hummus, many unheard off in its native land, chilli, sun-dried tomatoes, cream cheese and Moroccan hummus, which must come as a surprise to Moroccans. Kebab shops are on every high street, mainly offering doner kebab in the form of rotating meat loaves made in factories. European supermarkets now offer packets of ‘kebab’, slices of pork or turkey ready for the microwave. This globalised cornucopia is surely to be welcomed, but the discerning diner will also search for authenticity and depth, which can be found in plenty in the diverse range of Middle Eastern restaurants and groceries in London.

London’s landscape of Middle Eastern food

Hummus

Hummus

Middle Eastern food establishments dot the geography of London, following patterns of diaspora, settlement and commerce. At the heart of London’s West End is the Lebanese/Arab enclave of Edgware Rd and Marble Arch, into parts of Mayfair. The sound and smell of narguila smoke pervades the area, from the many Arab café terraces when the weather permits.

Groceries and supermarkets are emporia of every sort of Middle Eastern food: vegetables, olives and pickles, meat counters, cheeses, bakeries offering flat breads and pizza-like crusts of cheese and herbs, called manaqish, and jars and tins of everything. Restaurants, snacks and juice bars intermingle with pharmacies, hair dressers and estate agents, all announcing themselves in Arabic. These are mainly Lebanese establishment, catering to a clientele of Arab residents and visitors for whom that part of London is a focus, especially during the tourist season in summer.

Further up the Edgware Rd into Maida Vale and beyond to Kilburn and further west, there sprung many Iranian and Iraqi (mostly Kurdish) eateries and shops. Arab establishments have also spread in many suburbs: Shepherds Bush and further west to Acton and Ealing is a mixed area featuring foods of many nationalities, including Maghrebis alongside more Lebanese. One Moroccan food stall there has recently been written up in the food columns and awarded prizes.

Kensington, long frequented by the richer Middle Easterners, is home to many Iranian and Arab establishments. Turks have inhabited NE London, Hackney and Stoke Newington, and further north and east, where you find many ocakbasi grills, as well as restaurants catering for local workers and offering stews and pilafs (rice or bulgar). There is even an iskembe (tripe) saloon. From these original areas of settlement and commerce, Middle Eastern restaurants have now spread into all areas of London.

On the menu of these restaurants are diverse regional foods, but meat grills, kebabs, and mezze are constant items. Kebabs, of course, go beyond the vertical skewers of Turkish doner and Lebanese shwarma (also derived from Turkish), the best and original form being layers of meat and fat and not an industrial meatloaf. Cubes of meat and ground meat patties on skewers are common to all, though with different composition and seasoning, reflecting regional origin: the Iranian ground meat koubide tastes quite different from the Turkish or Lebanese kofte. Iranians also have distinct genres such as barg, sheets of meat rolled over a skewer. Chicken kebabs are ubiquitous, but, to me, lack distinction. Other grills include liver, kidney and sweetbreads. Garnishes and accompaniments are another source of regional variations.

Khosh mezze

Middle Eastern flatbread

Middle Eastern flatbread

Mezze is a Persian word, meaning ‘taste’, khosh mezze means delicious. It is widely, and wrongly, translated as hors d’oeuvres. It is not an opening course in a multi-course meal, but specifically related to drink, usually alcoholic. Items of the mezze repertoire can be meals in their own right, such as hummus, vine-leaves, bourek pastries (stuffed with cheese or meat), and so on. But they only qualify as mezze when served in small portions with drink, which is also the case with Spanish tapas.

The mezze repertoire is offered primarily by Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, as well as the many Middle Eastern and North African restaurants who have adopted these modes. Iranian restaurants have their own particular ‘starter’ dishes: aubergines in different combinations, wild garlic, musir, in yoghurt, sabzi paneer, an abundance of fresh herbs with white cheese, and kuku sabzi, a kind of herb frittata. Typically, prosperous Middle Eastern diners would not have considered the mezze as a meal, but would have proceeded to more meaty dishes. Now, however, especially in the globalised dining fashions, meals consisting of a variety of small dishes are popular and superseding the three-course meal: Spanish tapas, Italian cicchetti, Russian zakuski, and the ‘tasting menus’ offered by many restaurants. Mezze fits in very well with this trend. Many other restaurants are now eclectic in including items from all these different regional traditions.

Beyond kebab and mezze

Bulgur koftesi

Bulgur koftesi

There are, of course, many other genres of Middle Eastern foods, beyond kebab and mezze: stews, breads, pies, pastries and sweets, some of them offered in restaurants and leaking into globalised menus. Of the flat breads pitta has become most common in eateries and markets, convenient for sandwiches and wraps; lavash, thin flat bread, is especially good for wraps; Persian noun, is now more recognised in Indian naan. Pies and dumplings, especially kubba/kibbe/icli kofte, typically made with bulgar (cracked wheat) and ground meat, entered the mezze repertoire, and are also served as snacks and take-away, as has bourek, wraps or pies of filo stuffed with cheese or meat. Sweet pastries of the baklava family are widely offered in Middle Eastern establishments, and now in supermarkets, not always of appetising quality.

The typical everyday meal for many in the Middle East is a stew of meat and vegetables eaten with rice and/or bread. There are endless variations in modes of cooking, spicing, ingredients of vegetables and herbs, and rice cookery. This genre is not so well represented in restaurants. Iranians are justly proud of their refined rice cookery, and their restaurants reflect this taste: rice served with grills or the khoresht, stew, of the day. Turkish eateries in London’s ethnic enclaves, where local workers eat their lunch, offer a display of different stews and rice or bulgar.

London is now home to so many diasporic communities and their food, and the Middle Eastern contingent is very well represented, at both the gourmet and the mass catering levels, and items of their food are now prominent in the ‘fusion’ cuisines of the global scene.

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Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Question of Progress

This post was contributed by Dr Tara Atluri, visit research fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH) and the Department of Geography, Environment, and Development Studies.

Here Dr Atluri gives an insight into her approaching BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop on sexual politics (February 18,  1.30pm-3.30pm, room 402, Malet Street Main Building)

Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Wei Wei states that, “The internet is a wild land with its own games, languages, and gestures through which we are starting to share common feelings.”

And yet, how can one access cyber-utopias of meritocratic dreams on street corners and back alleys, in the traffic of cities, with no place from which to revel in blissful platitudes?

The “It gets better” campaign is predominantly a viral media campaign that began as a response to the suicides of queer youth in North America. The campaign involves online videos staging inspirational narratives of those who have overcome adversity. It is undoubtedly a tool of support for those who experience oppression.

However, one can consider how this viral media campaign exists in cyberspace, apart from the politics and economics of material space. ‘Betterment’ can describe individual embodiment. And yet, “betterment” can also describe “development” in ways that assume that economic wealth and the gentrification of cities are improvements. (Watch Guardian video: Anthony Gormley: “London is bought, developed and abandoned”)

We are told that cities “get better” with more expensive coffee bars where one can access Wi-Fi, and yet rising prices in rent and the disillusion of the commons can spell suicide for sexual politics in the streets.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner state, “There is nothing more public than privacy”(547) They further discuss `sex publics’ stating that,

Some of these publics have an obvious relation to sex: pornographic cinema, phone sex, “adult” markets for print, lap dancing. Others are organized around sex, but not necessarily sex acts in the usual sense: queer zones and other worlds estranged from heterosexual culture, but also more tacit scenes of sexuality like official national culture, which depends on a notion of privacy to cloak its sexualization of national membership. (547) (Read more here)

The authors discuss zoning laws that came into place in New York which lead to the closure of many gay bars on St. Christopher Street, once a well-known queer area. They state,

Now, gay men who want sexual materials or who want to meet other men for sex will have two choices: they can cathect the privatized virtual public of phone sex and the internet; or they can travel to small, inaccessible, little-trafficked, badly lit areas, re- mote from public transportation and from any residences, mostly on the waterfront, where heterosexual porn users will also be relocated and where the risk of violence will consequently be higher. (551)

Similarly, one can consider recent closures of many queer spaces in London such as the bar, The Joiners Arms in East London. While “betterment” within neoliberal discourse involves images of financially successful queers working overtime, the doors of the after hours that once housed alternative sex publics are slammed shut.

Far from being endemic to the West, questions of space, sex, and “betterment” cross borders. As Mayur Suresh writes,`

One of the first documented protests against police harassment of queer men in India was held in response to police raids targeting gay cruising in Central Park, Connaught Place in New Delhi. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

In the traffic of Mumbai, in the traffic of Delhi, flamboyant sari clad dancers strut between rows of cars asking tourists en route to airports, businessmen en route to offices, and middle class families in SUVs for change. Hijras, often referred to in secular English language discourse as male to female transgender persons are often found in contemporary neoliberal India, begging in the traffic of cities. The genealogy of the Hijra is connected to mythologies pre-dating colonial rule. Hijras originary religious role lay in blessing children.

In the space of neoliberal urban India, the Hijra body has not necessarily gotten “better” with Victorian colonial moralities and laws policing sex, or with capitalist models of “development.”

Suresh discusses a 2004 case of a Hijra who was gang raped and subject to police harassment,

Kokila told the police about the gang rape, but instead of registering a case and sending her for a medical examination, they harassed her with offensive language and took her along with the two men to the Byappanahalli Police Station. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

Beyond the tempo of Google there are bodies in the streets, beaten and harassed, living and loving in the streets. Solipsistic urban publics stare into cell phones, ignoring those whom they encounter in shared space. Privacy exists for the privileged few. Fear is fuelled by gated communities and an infinite array of private passwords. In the meantime, cities of wealth turn citizenship into a question of capital, dividing insiders from outsiders, with the colonizing spirit of settlers extending to the gentrification of dark corners of cities.

If we are to envision inspirational sexual politics today, we should perhaps avert our eyes momentarily from the glare of mall lighting and MacBooks. Before it can ever get better, perhaps it should get critical.

Tara Atluri will be giving a BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop (titled “Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Temporal Maps of International Development”) on 18 February (13.30 -15.30), Room 402, Malet Street Main Building. Book your place here.

Works Cited

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