REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– As it prepares to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korea is scrambling to stem a widening match-fixing scandal that has so far spread to five different professional sports, disgusting fans nationwide.
On Saturday, prosecutors in the city of Daegu arrested a 26-year-old betting broker they allege masterminded several game-fixing schemes in the Korea Baseball Organization, the nation's most popular sports league.
But baseball is just the tip of a deepening scandal that also involves soccer, basketball, volleyball and motorboat racing, authorities say.
In an attempt to bring consumer confidence back to the nation's lucrative sporting industry, officials from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism recently announced several "no mercy" measures for brokers, players and coaches that include lengthy prison terms and lifetime bans from sports for violations.
The new laws seek to corral an elusive $3-billion Internet sports-betting world that involves an estimated 1,000 operators -– some based in nations such as China and Vietnam. Prosecutors are also offering up to $90,000 in rewards for whistle-blowers who report match-fixing attempts.
Authorities say harsh punishments are needed to avoid unnecessary international scrutiny as South Korea prepares to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
"We sincerely apologize to the nation for failing to prevent such terrible scandals," a contrite Culture Minister Choi Kwang-sik said at a recent news conference.
The nation's most recent match-fixing scandal surfaced last year when authorities issued lifetime bans to 47 soccer players accused of taking bribes to manipulate match outcomes. Two players later committed suicide.
So far this year, authorities have investigated 15 professional women's volleyball players for game-fixing after two admitted that they had taken part in schemes dating back years. The women said they made deliberate mistakes to doctor final scores, with each receiving up to $4,500 per match in payment, prosecutors said.
The allegations have also spread to motorboat racing. One 46-year-old racer was reportedly paid for sending a broker cellphone text messages with the predicted order of racing finishes. Police say they suspect that numerous other racers are involved.
Many fans say they are dismayed that cheating has once again infiltrated baseball -- South Korea's most popular pastime, which last year attracted 6.8 million fans in a nation of 50 million residents.
Fans have in the past expressed displeasure over alleged match-fixing by boycotting games. In 2004, a similar scandal caused attendance at games to drop to 2.3 million before recovering.
For South Koreans, the allegations are tantamount to the 1919 "Black Sox scandal" in the U.S. when players from the Chicago White Sox admitted to rigging that year's World Series.
Media reports here blame the scandals on a complacent acceptance of a "culture of cheating" at every level of competition, from amateur to pro. They say the philosophy to get ahead by any means has also trickled into academia and scientific research, where test-stealing and fraud have become rampant.
A recent article in the Korea Times said that "endless stories about fixed matches and bribed officials suggest that Korean scholastic sports are just as corrupt and exploitative as their professional counterparts."
The newspaper said many scholastic programs are regarded as feeders to professional sports, making the stakes incredibly high.
"Basically, Korean school athletes have been told repeatedly that if you aren't cheating, you aren't trying," the newspaper said. "No wonder so many of them display a lack of respect for competitive integrity as pros, jumping at the first fixer offering them a chance to make some money on the side."
Prosecutors say the 26-year-old sports broker arrested Saturday paid off two active professional players to have them intentionally walk batters, influencing game outcomes. The pitchers were paid $2,660 per game, authorities said.
-- John M. Glionna