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Israeli research connects sport and compulsive betting




For many years sport betting was banned in most countries, so it went underground. But with bookmakers now legally able to bet on every form of sport, it has become very big business.

If one logs on to Betfair, a betting exchange based in the UK, you will see that millions of pounds are bet on a single Premier League soccer match – and Betfair is only one of thousands of betting sites.

Perhaps a couch potato taking a bet on a particular sporting event is acceptable, but when the sportsmen themselves start to gamble, it is cause for concern.

We all like to believe that when we see a sportsman (or -woman for that matter) make a mistake that costs a goal or a few extra runs in cricket, that it was a genuine mistake and not because the sportsman was deliberately trying to lose the match.

The Hansie Cronje affair caused ripples all over the world. Cronje admitted to “throwing” cricket matches. In the world of tennis, players such as Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Feliciano Lopez were investigated for gambling.

The question is: What turns a sportsman into a compulsive gambler? It is said the soft signs of compulsive gambling – high energy levels, unreasonable expectations, extreme competitiveness, distorted optimism and above-average IQs – are often the traits characterising competing athletes. However, precious little research is available on the prevalence of gambling among athletes and the relevant warning signs.

A new Tel Aviv University (TAU) study published in The American Journal of Addictions, indicates that high school learners involved in competitive sports are at an increased risk of gambling.

According to the research, led by Dr Belle Gavriel-Fried of TAU’s School of Social Work and conducted by TAU student Idit Sherpsky, in collaboration with Dr Israel Bronstein of Bar-Ilan University, the participation of male high school learners in competitive sport is associated with problem gambling and gambling frequency, and female learners who participate in competitive sport are also at a higher risk of gambling frequency.

“The drive to win underpins both gambling behaviour and competitive sport,” Gavriel-Fried is quoted as saying. “Most of the research within this area has been conducted on university athletes, but we wanted to dig deeper, find out whether the link between gambling and physical activities began earlier – before other co-factors emerge – and we found that, in fact, it does.”

For the study, the researchers asked 316 high school learners aged between 14 and 19, from four high schools in Israel to fill out questionnaires to establish their involvement in sport and their gambling habits.

“Intensive exercise” was assessed on a frequency rating scale. “Competitiveness” was rated by the number of competitive sports engaged in over the previous year, including university or junior university sports and other extracurricular programmes.

They found a significant difference between youths involved in intense cardiovascular activity (for the sake of exercise alone) and those participating in competitive sports. The latter were more often engaged in regulated lotteries and scratch cards, gambling on other sporting events, poker and other card games.

“Studies conducted on college-age athletes in relation to gambling might be misleading, because the university environment itself has been found to promote risk behaviour,” said Gavriel-Fried.

“Here we made a distinction between youths involved in competitive sport and those involved in intensive exercise. The objective of competitive sport is to win as a team, whereas the objective of intensive exercise is to maintain your health and fitness.

“There was a clear divide between the two groups. We hope that this study will redirect high schools to integrate gambling prevention programmes for youths involved in competitive sport – in order to avoid sticking ‘healthy heads in sick beds’, so to speak.”

According to the researchers, due to their competitiveness, athletes as young as 14 should pay closer attention to the risks involved in so-called harmless gambling practices, such as card games.

“For competitive athletes, there is an intrinsic impulse embedded within – to win, at all costs. This underpins gambling behaviour as well,” said Gavriel-Fried, who is currently researching high-risk behaviour and addictions.


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