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This is the first time I've ever taken a wager on fencing."
The tidy man behind the window in the basement shop on Tottenham Court Road has worked for the William Hill betting agency since 1977. He says it was mere happenstance he was in the shop in North London years ago when the great white whale actually jumped into the boat, a gent who waltzed in to bet Hitler would be found alive on the moon. The most memorable transactions Gary Horton has handled personally through the years have been more prosaic, such as the half-dozen wagers on the Loch Ness monster.
There is hardly a proposition William Hill won't cover. Or initiate. The firm laid 1,000 to 1 on a UFO's hovering over the opening ceremony. Says Joe Crilly, a company press officer who devised the UFO wager, "A hard-core element in our punters are really keen on the supernatural, things like '[Prime Minister] David Cameron will say aliens exist.' So this was a natural next step." Fifty people, incidentally, backed the little green men.
Women's foil, however.... It is 36 hours before the anticipated alien invasion of Vegas-by-the-Thames, where, in 1960, a parliamentary act made off-track bookmaking legal. According to a 2010 report by the auditing firm Deloitte, Britain's legal gambling industry was worth around £6 billion (about $10 billion) and employed 100,000 people. Olympic action is expected to top £10 million ($15.7 million), not a bonanza for a 17-day event but a larger handle than for a typical Premier League weekend or the European championship soccer final.
Olympic betting in London is nothing new. William Hill has been taking five-ringed action in its shops since the 1980s, when current London organizing committee president Sebastian Coe was smashing middle-distance records, and the company has been doing it online since Sydney 2000. "People are willing to bet on a sport you'd think they wouldn't," says Crilly, citing his own mother, who fancies herself a diving expert every four years. She bases her judgment on the size of the splash.
The meticulous Horton scans his computer for fencing odds, which have been set by company "compilers," who have had to step outside their comfort zones of soccer and cricket and bone up on the nose-plugged nuances of synchronized swimming and the cut and thrust of fencing. Valentina Vezzali, a five-time gold medalist in foil, is even money, but I'm looking for a price. Ten to 1 is tempting on Lee Kiefer, the American prodigy with the sly smile that suggests she knows something no one else knows, but I settle on a South Korean at 5 to 1. If Nam Hyun-hee wins, my £5 will turn into enough money to maybe have two shirts and a pair of jeans laundered at the hotel.
I also bet the chalk, throwing a fiver on Ryan Lochte at less than even odds (4 to 6) in the 400 meter IM—this practically makes him a mortal Lochte—and playing a parlay at a dismal 9 to 4 of a Usain Bolt sweep of the 100 and 200 and two U.S. basketball golds.
Higher, faster, stronger, richer. The most glaring Olympic deficiency for the hard-core 21st-century sports fan outside the U.K. is the most powerful of rooting interests: self-interest. The Olympics offers fabulous competition, heart-warming backstories, postcard settings and generally harmless chauvinism, but legal gambling would personalize and monetize the experience. Think fantasy football, Jacques Rogge style. Or rotisserie fencing. U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist, has no objection to being objectified by gamblers. "Not that [wagering] would [affect] how we compete," Coughlin says. "We are all ruthless competitors. No point shaving or anything like that." Shaving down, yes. Shaving points, no.
The IOC takes a dimmer view of the practice. Last weekend the Olympic Council of Ireland was investigating an unidentified athlete for betting on an opponent in a pre-London event—and reportedly making a profit of $4,800. (The IOC forbids athletes, coaches and team officials from gambling on Olympic events, just as companies like William Hill are not allowed to advertise Olympic wagering.) While the specter of doping hangs London fog--like over all sports, the threat of fixes is now omnipresent. Britain's Olympic minister, Hugh Robertson, told The Sunday Times of London last year, "You cannot underestimate the threat this poses because the moment that spectators start to feel that what they are seeing in front of them is not a true contest ... the whole thing falls to pieces." The IOC has a unit working with the U.K. Gambling Commission and London's Metropolitan Police to monitor suspicious betting patterns.
I doubt my £15 profligacy will raise an eyebrow. But in the past two years betting scandals have roiled soccer in Europe and Asia, cricket in Pakistan, rugby in Australia and Europe, professional tennis and sumo wrestling. It also had flicked at the Olympics even before the Irish incident. According to a BBC report last September, an Azerbaijani national made secret payments totaling $9 million to the International Amateur Boxing Association to ensure two of his nation's boxers would win London gold. (The AIBA denied the allegations.) The gambling scourge has scored as many touches as the 38-year-old Vezzali, who beat Nam for the bronze. But Lochte cruised, and I'm alive on Bolt-plus-hoops. There were no UFOs, just James Bond and the queen parachuting into the Olympic Stadium, so the house did fine.