In Australia in decades past, you could only legally bet on horses or greyhounds. This, presumably, was because animals will not act dishonestly in return for money.
A further safeguard was present: every race was scrutinised by a panel of stipendiary stewards. If a runner did not perform to expectations, or a jockey did not appear to be ‘on the job’, or the betting signaled something was amiss, the stewards would investigate.
These safeguards didn’t always work, because those wishing to influence the results of races have, at various times and to varying degrees, been able to infiltrate the racing industry from top to bottom. Stablehands, jockeys, and trainers are obvious targets for organised crime. But also stewards, bookmakers, administrators, journalists, and even high court judges have all been ‘on the take’.
So the history of the racing industry in Australia has involved a constant battle between the forces of good and evil, and through various eras one side or the other appeared to gain the upper hand.
But with the internet revolution the gambling industry has opened up, and it is now possible in Australia to legally bet on competitions where the athletes involved are humans. The safeguard implicit with animal racing – that the athletes are incorruptible – is gone.
The second safeguard is also missing: there is no panel of stewards watching for irregularities in the performance of those involved in these events.
The forces of evil have got an unopposed ride.
So the recent NRL betting scandal comes as no surprise, and is unlikely to be an isolated event.
Furthermore, it is very unlikely that such corruption is confined to the NRL. Wherever you have gambling, there is the potential for corruption.
The relative ease with which a match outcome might be altered will vary from sport to sport depending on how many key participants would need to be influenced to achieve a pre-determined outcome.
Rugby union would appear to be particularly vulnerable in this regard. Firstly, the refereeing of the game is open to considerable interpretation, and decisions are often contentious.
Secondly, there is one position in the team that has a disproportionate influence on the result. The player in that position is not only responsible for navigating the team around the park, but he is usually also the goalkicker in a sport where points from the boot make up a large part of the score. That player has the number 10 on his back.
So to ‘fix’ a game of rugby would not be particularly difficult. Is it already happening? Money is being taken by bookmakers and betting agencies around the world on the outcome of SuperRugby games, and in many of these games only one person would need to be corrupted to ensure a result.