His body was found at the foot of his apartment building. This time last year, Lee Kyung-Hwan had it all. He was a good-looking, young soccer player with a pro contract for a local team in Seoul, South Korea. Lee was even being considered for a spot on his national team. However, like thousands of athletes around the world he made a mistake.
Dissatisfied with low pay, he and some of his teammates decided to take part in fixing matches with a gang of criminals. They were found out. Lee was convicted and then banned from the sport he loved. Last week, it is presumed that shame became too much and he jumped out of his 15th-floor apartment in Seoul. He leaves a widowed mother.
Lee is the fourth South Korean sportsman to commit suicide over the issue of fixing. In the last few months, there have been other deaths — either murders or suicides — linked to sports corruption in half-a-dozen countries. There are now more than 60 national police investigations around the world into the problem from the U.S. college system to soccer games in the European Champions League to pre-World Cup matches in South Africa.
The whole phenomenon is a product of globalization. The sports gambling industry has been affected by the Internet and international television, as much as the travel and music industry were transformed in the 1990s. It does not matter if you are a Joe Bagofdonuts organized crime bookie on the streets of Montreal or a senior executive in a billion-dollar bookmaking company in the U.K., or a professional gambler in Las Vegas, your industry is being transformed by globalization.
One of the unforeseen effects of this globalization is the spread of corruption in the sports world. For most of the sports gambling market is in Asia. Most of that market is illegal and run by the Asian equivalent of Al Capone. There are a few uncorrupted sports in Asia, but those are the honourable exceptions. From Taiwanese baseball to Japanese sumo wrestling to Pakistani cricket, illegal bookmakers have fixed leagues on that continent to an extraordinary degree. A senior Malaysian politician once estimated that over 60 per cent of the soccer games in his country were corrupted. Officials give similar numbers in China, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and many other countries in the region.
These levels of corruption have meant that many sports fans and gamblers have given up on their own leagues. Attendance, television ratings and sponsorship for local sports have all declined dramatically. So what does an Asian sports fan do? In the globalized world, they turn their attention and bets to other leagues. For example, I once met a triad-connected businessman in Kuala Lumpur who claimed that he bets thousands of dollars a month on the Icelandic soccer league. He assumed that the Icelandic league was so small that it must be honest.
The criminal fixers have also travelled and are corrupting sports leagues around the world. There are trials and investigations going on in Turkey, Singapore, Australia, Costa Rica, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Finland, Hungary and 50 other countries.
There have also been alleged corrupted games in Canada. I spoke to senior German police officers who busted a gang of European and Asian fixers corrupting soccer games in nine different countries, including Canada. They were amazed that no Canadian officials had approached them to investigate what had happened here.
What is even more amazing is that no international sports agency has taken the lead in fighting this dangerous new problem. Last month, FIFA, the world soccer agency, got rid of its chief integrity officer. The International Olympic Committee, for whom I testified, has embarked on a series of meetings with mostly European bureaucrats and officials that have produced lots of words, but no concrete action.
The sports world desperately needs an independent agency to fight against this new type of corruption. The agency will have to be linked, but separate from other sports organizations, because like owners of a meat-packing plant producing tainted meat, officials have a vested interest in suppressing news of possible corruption in their own sport.
Canada should lead the campaign to found this organization. We should do this for a number of reasons. One, it is the right thing to do, and Canadians have never shirked from doing the right thing.
Two, we are a middle power searching for a more powerful presence in the world. Leading the fight against sports corruption is a good way of punching above our weight. For a million dollars, we can help pioneer an organization that can have positive attention for Canada around the world.
Three, we have done it before. A group of Canadians, led by the great Olympian and Montreal lawyer Dick Pound created the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the international and independent group that fights against drugs in sport. When the sports world was faced with a new wave of undetectable drugs in the late 1990s, Pound and the Canadians rolled up their sleeves and created WADA to fight against this type of corruption. It is time for us to do it again. The world of sports needs us.
Declan Hill is a journalist and academic whose book on this subject — The Fix — is published in 17 languages. He has testified for the Council of Europe, the International Olympic Committee and the Dutch Football Association (KNVB).