Friday, 23 September 2011

The cleanest Games ever?

Did you watch Newsnight's rather stunning exposé of the boxing world's alleged deal with Azerbaijan? $9m investment in a failing Boxing World Series venture in return for two Olympic gold medals.

At one level, it's obvious that this stuff is happening. Since the development of pay-TV and media rights, popular sports have become financial mammoths, and where you get money, you get corruption: the IOC is notoriously corrupt on a systemic and personal level (as well as traditionally being run by people with a background in fascist politics - I mean you, Samaranch). And then there's FIFA, football's governing body. The rise of instantaneous and anonymous betting is the other driver. You can't just pay a team to let a goal in these days, but you can persuade individual players to commit fouls in the 32nd minute and so on.

What struck me was the statement from AIBA's infamous lawyers, Carter-Ruck, which stated that fixing boxing matches was an 'impossibility'.

Oh yeah? 5 referees scoring the match by pressing a button when they see a valid punch? It's a subjective system which is wide open to corruption.

I'm not completely speaking out of my bottom. I've refereed in my sport up to World Cup level, and I've sat in bland holding areas with Olympic and World Championship referees while they shoot the breeze. They've named names (not ones I recognise, because I'm small fry) and pointed out actual fights I've watched and explained who, how and why the scores were awarded in spite of the evidence of my eyes. Like boxing, it's subjective: a fencing referee according to the rules awards points by interpreting the action. A fencer can challenge the referee's knowledge of the rules, but never his/her interpretation of what's happened.

In two of the weapons, the fencer has to have right of way: s/he has to attack first, or defend himself from attack before retaliating. When both fencers' scoring lights come up, the referee has to decide who took and retained right of way: when the blades are moving at 180mph, that's a tough decision, and an easy situation in which to call the action incorrectly, by accident or by design. 30 years ago, there wasn't even an electronic scoring system: it was all down to the referee to decide even whether someone had been hit.

There are also institutional reasons why fencing would be easy to fix: many of the top referees are Eastern European, and less than affluent, and there are no doubt plenty of greedy or weak referees from anywhere. $20,000 to call a single point the wrong way - not even fixing the whole match - might be a strong temptation. Has it happened? Well, referee scuttlebutt around the Beijing Olympics claimed that referees were being flown in from another country and not told until the last moment which fight they were presiding over, to minimise the opportunities for corruption. We've also added video appeals: a fencer gets 3 opportunities to appeal, and another referee makes the call. I'm pretty certain that the chances for match-fixing are minimal compared with the past, but doubtless there are ways round every system.

'An impossibility'? Not a chance.

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