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Don't bet on it

Skiing can't afford gambling controversy

Posted: Wednesday February 2, 2005 1:41PM; Updated: Thursday February 3, 2005 5:58PM
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Bode Miller
U.S. skier Bode Miller is competing in Italy this week.
Getty Images/Mike Hewett

Five things on my mind this week...

1. Ski racing and gambling, fill me in.

OK, here goes. I'm watching the men's Super-G race last Saturday at the Alpine Ski World Championships in Bormio, Italy. Racers come screaming down the course wearing standard-issue racing bibs, where their number is printed. It's customary at World Cup races and World Championships for these bibs to have sponsors, which pay supporting funds for the privilege of making their names visible. The sponsor on the men's bibs is betandwin.com. The betandwin.com logo and Web address are also visible on signage in the homestretch and finish corral.

It turns out that betandwin.com is a Europe-based Website where clients can place wagers on all sorts of things. This includes sporting events and -- this is where it gets interesting -- the Alpine Ski World Championships.

Legal sports gambling is common in Europe. According to Gian Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation, the sponsorship deal with betandwin.com was brokered by the Bormio organizing committee, and not by FIS. "We had no control over this arrangement,'' Kasper told SI.com. "But I don't believe it hurts our sport. It might even help our sport, by bringing more people to it.''

It doesn't hurt the sport?

Potentially, gambling can kill any sport through corruption that takes the form of thrown games, point-shaving or, in the case of sport like ski racing, race manipulation. Accepting sponsorship money from a gambling web site gives the impression that ski racing -- whether it's the International Ski Federation or the local committee in a storied-old World Cup town like Bormio is -- encourages the practice of betting on its events. "But our sport is not like soccer, where a referee can be paid to influence a match,'' said Kasper. "There is risk, I suppose, but that risk is very small in ski racing. A racer cannot make himself go one-hundredth of a second slower.''

I'm not sure that's true. At betandwin.com, customers can bet on a number of propositions, including the winner of the race, head-to-head competition and whether a skier finishes the race. Suppose Bode Miller wants to place a bet. I'm not saying Bode would do this and I have no reason to believe that he would. But suppose he felt like it. He could bet $50,000 on himself not to finish a race and then simply crash. He crashes frequently enough that this is not likely to trigger an investigation. Or suppose Benni Raich of Austria wants to bet on Georgio Rocca of Italy to beat him in a slalom: All Raich has to do is apply the brakes on one run -- or crash -- and he wins. This might sound insidious on the face of it, but there's no rule prohibiting ski racers from betting on their own races. There's no rule prohibiting them from betting on their opponents. "Of course, on principle, we would prefer that they do not bet, but there is no rule,'' said Kasper.

This, of course, is insane. Every major sport in the U.S. has rules against players betting on their own games. It's the furthest a sport can go to protect credibility.

The United States Ski and Snowboard Association, likewise, has no rules against its members placing bets on their own races, instead deferring to FIS rules. In fact, U.S. racer Erik Schlopy, has sold his helmet sponsorship rights to a gambling Website, goplay21.com. Schlopy's Website links to another gambling Website, Maximacasino.com. This one does not appear to take bets on ski racing, which by the low standards established by FIS, would qualify as the moral high ground.

Ski racing is a sport, like so many others at the Olympic level, which is fighting for survival in a crowded and noisy world. A betting scandal would destroy it. Two obvious suggestions: Don't take advertising money from gambling Websites and mandate that racers cannot bet on their own sport, and threaten a lifetime ban if they do.