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Australia allows athletes to bet

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SYDNEY — A popular boast in gambling-mad Australia is that pub drinkers would bet on flies crawling up a wall.

The adage has been taken to new heights by the Australian Olympic Committee's announcement this month that it would allow its athletes to bet on themselves — or on their rivals — at the Sydney Games in September.

Critics say the decision opens the way for what is regarded as the most idealistic of sporting events to become embroiled in gambling scandals that have swept through the world of cricket, horse racing and soccer.

Supporters say Olympic athletes put a gold medal above throwing a race simply for money and it would be impossible to enforce a ban on betting in any case.

AOC president John Coates said, while he believed betting was "contrary to the Olympic ideals," to suggest an athlete would purposely lose a gold medal was inconceivable.

"It (betting) also is an added pressure on the athlete they certainly don't need at Games time," he said. "But our Olympians are not contracted to the AOC as employees as in professional sports. We do not pay them a fee for service."

Coates also argued that a gold medal was potentially worth millions of dollars in endorsements, outweighing the lure of winning a few thousand dollars from a bookmaker. But this has not been the experience of Australian cricket officials.

The Australian Cricket Board was forced to ban players from betting on matches after embarrassing revelations in 1998 that it had secretly fined top players Mark Waugh and Shane Warne in 1995 for taking money from bookmakers. Waugh and Warne, the Australian vice captain, had given what the ACB called routine field and weather information during Australia's 1994 tour of Sri Lanka. Both players said they had been "naive and stupid."

Since then the cricket world, once regarded as gentlemanly and as pure as the Olympic movement, has been rocked by former South African captain Hansie Cronje's confession that he had accepted thousands of dollars from bookmakers, and there have been allegations involving Indian and Pakistani players.

Dave Flaskas, manager of Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, who is seen as the host nation's hot favorite to win up to three gold medals, backed Coates' decision as realistic, even if it took away from the Olympic ideals.

"If two Australians are in the final and half the team are betting on different individuals, I don't think the Olympics needs it, and it takes away from the team concept," he said.

But even if the AOC banned athletes betting in their own events, a competitor could easily get a friend to do so, he told Reuters. "It's impossible to police, so I think John Coates has made the right decision."

Just how deeply gambling goes in the Australian soul was articulated last December by Prime Minister John Howard, ironically while announcing a review of Internet gambling. "Gambling is of course part and parcel of the Australian way of life," Howard said.

While not denouncing gambling in general, he said "problem gambling has become a major social concern," releasing a report saying Australia had 290,000 problem gamblers in a population of 19 million.

Those 290,000, one-third of all gamblers in Australia, lost $2 billion a year, the report said. They lost an average of $7,800 a year, compared with less than $385 a year for recreational gamblers. Nothing sums up Australians' love of a gamble more than the nation's top horse race. The Melbourne Cup, worth $1 million to the winner, was first raced in 1861 and has since unfailingly stopped the nation on the first Tuesday of each November.

Workers and schools, even primary schools, around the country pause to watch the race on television or listen to it on the radio. Members of the federal parliament join in.

Sports betting agency Centerbet, based in Alice Springs in Australia, expects to hold $29.5 million of the estimated $41 million bet with Australian bookmakers on the Olympics.

Centerbet sports betting manager Gerard Daffy told Reuters most of the money would come from overseas betters. He said he did not think more than 1 percent of Australian athletes would be interested in betting on the Games.

Even so, Daffy admitted to being shocked by the possibility of Australian Olympians placing a bet on themselves or a rival. "I would have thought that the AOC to allow their own athletes to bet is a bit strange," he said.