Beat the cheats: How can athletes fight competition manipulation?

14 Dec 2020

By Ignatius Koh

Cheating in sport. In most people’s minds, this concept often boils down to doping. However, another problem has started to grow over the past decade and is becoming increasingly threatening for the integrity of sport.

This is competition manipulation, or more commonly referred to as “match-fixing”. It can take the form of an athlete underperforming on purpose, or an official knowingly making wrong decisions to affect the competition.

These insidious acts threaten to cloud sports and compromises sportsmanship. It is crucial for athletes to be equipped with the know-how to combat it.


What is competition manipulation?

According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), competition manipulation is when an athlete or official cheats to remove the unpredictability of a competition. This happens, for example, when an athlete loses on purpose either to make a bet successful, or to gain a sporting advantage (facing an “easier” opponent in the next round of a tournament).

With the rise of the internet, online bets on sports competitions have become readily available. If not properly regulated, sports betting can pose a risk of competition manipulation. Athletes can be approached by malicious individuals to fix a game and make money on a bet.

To raise awareness on the increasing threat of competition manipulation, IOC launched the “Believe in Sport” campaign in October 2018, spearheaded by its Code of Conduct.

“Believe in Sport” ambassador, Isabelle Li, believes that education is key to prevent competition manipulation in sport. Photo: SportSG

One of its pillars urges athletes and officials to never share insider information – an easy slip with today’s widespread social media use. For example, athletes who post about their injuries may seem innocuous enough. But if the news is not public information, the revelation could inadvertently tip others off for illicit activities.

The Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) takes precaution by implementing a strict policy on social media. Athletes have to seek clearance before posting anything related to injuries, training or matches.

“Usually when we go for competitions or overseas training, we advise our athletes not to post details of our location or sparring partners, as some of the information may be sensitive,” said STTA senior high performance manager Eddy Tay.


Why must athletes be aware?

A footballer’s shimmy here, a skier’s slalom there – the beauty of sports is a sight to behold. For athletes who have given their lives to hone a craft, tainting their stage destroys its integrity and purity. It is also a crime.

“In the professional sporting industry, where athletes are paid for their sporting talents, they are not only expected to commit to the sport and perform at their maximum ability in any competitions,” said Football Association of Singapore’s Head of Competitions Aloysius Vetha. “But they are also responsible in ensuring that their actions do not undermine the symbolic value, norms and ideals that sports represent.”

Most athletes, and people in general, believe that competition manipulation only occurs at major events. But smaller-scale competitions are also affected – perhaps more than expected. Away from the limelight, these events are easy pickings due to less stringent measures.

This is where education is key. Young athletes must be aware of the pitfalls to steer clear from them. Experienced athletes may also not realise the extent of manipulation, making it crucial to impart knowledge regularly.


How does Singapore plan to raise awareness?

Koh Jian Ying, a “Believe in Sport” ambassador, hopes to raise more awareness on the pitfalls of competition manipulation with his peers. Photo: Andy Chua

For now, the threat in Singapore remains low. But the Republic already has measures in place for potential indiscretions.

In Koh Jian Ying and Isabelle Li, Singapore has two “Believe in Sport” ambassadors who will bring sporting experience in the fight against competition manipulation. As athletes, their feedback during IOC workshops and webinars will shape the organisation’s campaign.

“Previously, organisations sent out explanations (of competition manipulation) through e-mails, but some people may not read e-mails,” said national water polo captain Koh. “It will be easier to connect with our peers as we’re all athletes.”

Athletes must be informed of their roles and responsibilities, added former national paddler Li. Social media campaigns and information booths at major Games are two possible strategies.

“There are many grey areas, and many athletes are likely to be targeted, so the IOC is focusing on education,” she said.

The Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) will also work with Sport Singapore, the National Sports Associations and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to assess competition manipulation reports before handing them to enforcement agencies.


What can athletes do to deter approaches?

Vigilance is of utmost importance. Athletes must be on guard to recognise attempts to manipulate results in order to foil those wanting to make a quick buck.

While well-wishing fans are common during competitions, those who pry further by asking performance-related questions should be viewed with suspicion. Conspirators could also target family members and close friends for insider information. Other times, it might be more explicit means such as providing incentives for athletes to throw a match.

Athletes who pick up such hints should report them to their team managers or chef de mission during major Games, said SNOC’s director of projects Antony Lee.

“Once we make a police report, we will ask the athlete to ignore the person and to not answer any unknown phone calls,” said Lee. “At the end of the day, their goal is to be fully prepared for training and competition.”

Find out more about the Olympic Movement Code on the Prevention of the Manipulation of Competitions here