— The force with which the expectorant arrives is perhaps the surest sign the ability to wager on these Olympic Games is no cause for alarm or controversy.
Then again, the man, who angrily offered his saliva instead of his name, had just lost a sizable chunk of change on the video roulette machine when asked whether he had perused the equestrian odds.
It’s true, though: Walk into any betting shop — and they are everywhere here — and pick your poison. Think Usain Bolt will set a world record in the 100 meters? On Monday morning, the William Hill agency offered 3-1 odds for a yes bet, 2-9 on a no. Got a strong feeling which country will win the most gold medals or how many Britain will nab? Feeling quite chipper, Ladbrokes is offering 66-1 odds on the latter’s low option of under 10.
Betting on amateur sports may run counter to the idealized version of the Olympic Games, particularly for a United States that so regulates the industry. But here, it’s as common as changing weather or afternoon tea.
“Gambling has always been a way of life in Britain — horses, darts, everything,” Robin Hall said as he exited the basketball arena Sunday night. “We can bet on anything — the next person to score a goal, the next person to hit a shot.
“It’s, like, nuts that you can only legally bet on sports in two states [in the U.S.]. Then again, you have to be 21 to drink in the States, which is phenomenally crazy.”
Hall walked with Simon Fisher, a buddy from Birmingham. Neither had plans to wager on the Olympics, though both followed the pre-Games buzz created by bets on who would light the caldron at the opening ceremony. Sir Roger Bannister, Sir Steve Redgrave, David Beckham, even Queen Elizabeth II drew plenty of action over a staggering seven-year window of wagering.
When seven young athletes stepped forward to do so, each nominated by a British Olympic hero, bookmakers had a quandary. Boylesports paid out on Redgrave, who entered Olympic Stadium with the flame before handing it to one of the children. Ladbrokes and Paddy Power paid anyone who had one of the seven Olympic legends who nominated the kids.
William Hill, this country’s largest agency with more than 2,000 shops, refunded all 50,000 pounds of bets.
“What happened, no one could have predicted,” William Hill’s Graham Sharpe told the Guardian. “It was not put to us, nobody quoted it. The only fair thing to do was to refund all the bets.”
And, of course, create a new line. Shortly after the opening ceremony ended, Ladbrokes offered odds on when director Danny Boyle would receive knighthood.
Truth is, though, the Olympics don’t produce much action. Hamza Sheikh, who sat behind a bulletproof glass window at one of the many William Hill agencies, said he had taken just seven bets on the Games. The shops, which are open 14 hours a day, 364 days a year, feature far more video gambling and wagering on soccer.
“The curiosity from tourists might increase foot traffic to play [video] roulette,” Sheikh said. “But you won’t see a lot of interest. Olympic soccer is a bit rubbish compared to Premier League anyway.”
Dave Panetta, working behind the counter at Ladbrokes, said he had seen a few “patriotic bets” on the Games. But 10 feet away, a crowd gathered around a man who lost 70 pounds in three spins on the video roulette machine.
“The sports are too obscure,” Panetta said. “Not too many people know about archery and sailing. Alarm bells might ring if we saw a 1,000-pound bet on sailing. We’d think, ‘This is a bit dodgy.’ ”
Gambling, in general, is a bit dodgy, but at least the volume of shops offer anonymity if it’s desired. Like Starbucks in America, William Hill had two shops across the street from each other on Charing Cross Road.
Back at the basketball arena, Fisher spoke perhaps the most universal truth about gambling, regardless the location or sport.
“The bookmakers always win,” he said.