Bad Sport. Gambling, organised crime and drugs in sport findings crime commission photo illustration.
SMH SPORT Illo by STAFF

Today's societies have taken sports well beyond the playing field, into every living room and village square, into corporate board rooms, the market place and the betting parlours of cyberspace. Sport has become much more than a simple leisure activity. It has also become a high-risk, high-finance business.

In less than a generation, world competitions have laid the foundations of a new economy that has transformed athletes into stars, adored by sponsors and public alike. But there is also a dark side to the growth and the glitter, with doping, corruption and match fixing threatening sport on an unprecedented scale.

This new playing field has thrown into sharp relief the need for public policies adapted to the scale of the phenomenon, both to preserve the integrity of sport and to mobilise its potential.

The rapid development of wide-scale sports fraud underscores the need to act urgently. It also shows that the current methods of dealing with the problem are largely obsolete.

In its most recent report, published last February, Europol revealed it had dismantled a network suspected of fixing 380 football matches. Sports fraud is no longer limited to cheating by an individual; it now belongs to the domain of organised crime and - with the growth of online betting - operates on a global scale.

Contrary to widespread belief, it is not only professional sport that is targeted. Manipulation of matches also plagues amateur sport, to the point where doping and violence are seriously undermining two basic sporting principles - fair play and the ''glorious uncertainty'' of the result.

This poses serious ethical problems, but it is also an economic and social challenge. Money hijacked by such practices is no longer available for the development of infrastructure, equipment, the training of coaches or the implementation of policies on education and social inclusion via sport.

To address this situation, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and the German government are bringing together more than a hundred governments for the 5th World Conference of Sports Ministers in Berlin this week. The event will be a unique opportunity to sound the alarm and get governments working together on the development of sports policies that are stronger, more inclusive, and adapted to the challenges of modern sports.

These challenges are formidable and require collective action on three levels. Firstly, sports fraud must be recognised as a political problem to be dealt with at the state and international level. Significant progress occurs when governments devote resources to the problem and co-operate.

The fight against doping in sport provides a good example: the combined efforts of the World Anti-Doping Agency (which determines the list of prohibited substances) and UNESCO's international convention against doping in sport (which incorporates these recommendations into international law) are making a real difference in this domain.

Secondly, we must ensure the measures that emerge from this type of co-operation are implemented via coherent national sports policies, prepared in collaboration with all concerned parties: the relevant government ministries, sports federations, laboratories, lottery websites and networks of amateurs that are often unaware of each other's efforts.

The third level of action is through education. There can be no sustainable sports policy without inclusive physical and sports education for all. Public investment is key, not only for major sports events but also for supporting local initiatives to provide access to sport for all, training sufficient numbers of teachers, and conceiving adaptable education programs that make sports a motor for social cohesion and planning.

UNESCO offers a platform for collaboration and the sharing of good practices, to highlight the stakes and turn words into action. Sport is a powerful vehicle for many of society's values: positive ones such as fair play, respect for others and oneself, and more negative values such as easy money, victory at all cost and the commercialisation of athletes and their bodies.

It is the responsibility of all those involved in sport to, together, define the values that we want - without being naive or fatalistic. This won't be done spontaneously by self-regulation: it requires political will and sufficient, appropriate resources.

Irina Bokova is the Director-General of UNESCO.