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BUSAN , South Korea -- Corruption in sports is nothing new to athletes and fans. But in recent years, South Korea has seen an onslaught of scandals that nearly crippled its domestic sports leagues.

The four major sports in South Korea—baseball, football, basketball and volleyball—have all been scrutinized in the past few years for match-fixing incidents in which hundreds of athletes, officials and even coaches have been indicted or put under suspicion for rigging games, much to the dismay of its recent growing fan base.

Feature: Korean Government Seeks to Fix Country`s Sports Fixing Problem


BUSAN , South Korea — Corruption in sports is nothing new to athletes and fans. But in recent years, South Korea has seen an onslaught of scandals that nearly crippled its domestic sports leagues.

The four major sports in South Korea—baseball, football, basketball and volleyball—have all been scrutinized in the past few years for match-fixing incidents in which hundreds of athletes, officials and even coaches have been indicted or put under suspicion for rigging games, much to the dismay of its recent growing fan base.

The K-League, the country’s formerly-named national football league, gained the most notoriety of them all when 51 players were banned from not only the domestic league, but by FIFA, the world-governing body of the sport. After the allegations surfaced in 2011, it drove two coaches and a former player to commit suicide.

Baseball, Korea’s most lucrative sport, saw a 2012 scandal nearly tear the KBO apart when two pitchers for the LG Twins were banned from the league for issuing walks at the instruction of bookies. As punters were able to bet on individual at-bats, the pitchers would inturn walk batters early in the game in exchange for a paltry $5,000.

So why is it that these scandals rocked the Korean sports community and had players risk their careers over the past few years?

In a word, money.

As Korea’s domestic sports scene only recently began to flourish, gamblers’ legal sports betting options are limited exclusively to the state-sponsored Sports Toto lottery, which offers betting with a maximum of 100,000 won per ticket and offers odds on wins, ties, losses and the combined scores between teams. As Sports Toto has no Internet site to bet and offers low betting options, gamblers have taken to illegal wagers online, which offer higher maximums and more options.

The Korean National Gambling Control Commission lists illegal sports betting as a $66-billion business in the country. The Korean government meanwhile has been cracking down on illegal gambling sites—of which there are reportedly 23,000 nationally—whereby some operators have been rumored to make between 500 million to a billion won in profit annually.

Yoo Eui-dong, a researcher for the Korea Institute for Sports Science, notes that the problem hasn’t gotten any better despite the government’s involvement. They are all illegal. It is very difficult to stop, said Yoo in a 2012 interview with the Christian Science Monitor.

The illegal sites, which offer limitless bets, thrive on making prop bets, which allow gamblers to bet on individual plays or occurrences but don’t necessarily determine the outcome of a game.

While marquee players can make hundreds of thousands of dollars, lower-tiered athletes involvement in match-fixing became apparent as many players were vulnerable to coercion from bookies due to low salaries (some as low as 1,000,000 won a month) and needed supplemental income just to survive. Others simply joined what they thought was a common phenomenon.

I joined the match-fixing without much compunction because I had heard that it’s widespread in the league, said Yeom Dong-kyun, a former goalkeeper with the K-League’s Jeonbuk Motors who was also given a lifetime ban.

The Korean government, apt to eradicate illegal sites and player manipulation, set up new laws in April to punish these online gamblers with heavy fines and imprisonment for up to five years. Players caught gambling or fixing games will face expulsion from the leagues.

But the question remains: Will the new enforcement work? It’s hard to say, as many of the illegal betting sites are based overseas and change domains frequently. And with hundreds of millions of won to be made, many website operators are prone to take the risk.

The biggest hurdle for the government will be the resiliency of gamblers themselves. Blocking websites and task-groups assigned to search and shut down sites will almost surely take a backseat to innovators and proxies for those looking to get their betting fix.

A silver lining can be seen from the scandals, however, as the newly formed commission has applied ethical standards and heavy penalties for players who gamble and raised the minimum salaries to 24 million won per player in all major sports, in hopes of making the appeal of succumbing to bookies seem less appealing.

One thing’s for sure: The enmity between the government, the bookies and the punters is surely not going to die down anytime soon.


Five Infamous Fixers

Kang Dong-hee

Choi Sung-kuk

The now ex-Dongbu Promy coach resigned after his arrest, and was indicted for accepting money from brokers to help fix four matches during the 2010-2011 Korean Basketball League season.

A former national team player, he’s rumored to be working as a receptionist at a hospital in Seoul rather than applying his talents on the pitch after being busted in 2011.

Park Hyun-Joon

Lee Jung-su

Ha Jung-eun and
Kim Min-jung

LG’s former ace, who in 2011 won 13 games and also pitched for the Korean national team, initially denied his involvement in gambling until his admission brought harsh criticism from fans and media alike.

Vancouver Olympic gold medalist Lee was banned for three years of international competition in 2010 after allegedly helping to rig competitions and national team trials. He called himself a victim of deep-rooted and wrong practices of the local sports scene.

The medal contending doubles badminton duo were tossed from the 2012 Olympic Games after intentionally losing which would have allowed them to play a weaker opponent in the next round.

Illustration by Da-in Kim

 

 

 

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About Jeff Liebsch

Jeff Liebsch has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Eurobasket, Tribal Football and Yonhap News. He can be followed on Twitter at @chevybusan.

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