Wayne Gretzky is in Turin and he's not taking any questions about gambling. He doesn't want to talk about his wife's reported betting habits or his friend Rick Tocchet, who has been charged with financing a sports gambling ring. Gretzky wants to concentrate on his duties as executive director of Team Canada's ice hockey team. Fair enough. We'll agree to an Olympic truce on the Gretzky story, at least in this space.
Over the years, the aura of "athletic purity" surrounding the Olympics has melted away. Any pretense of amateurism ended in 1988. That's when the International Olympic Committee gave the green light for professionals to compete in the Olympics if the governing federations of participating sports decided it was okay. In today's Olympics, commercial saturation is a given
But what about gambling? Let's just say, theoretically, that you wanted to bet on the Winter Olympics. Is there a casino or sportsbook out there ready to take your wager on biathlon, hockey or snowboarding? Not in Nevada. Even though sports betting is legal in Nevada, Olympic wagering is off-limits, according to Jay Kornegay of the Las Vegas Hilton.
In Britain, it's a different story. The Brits have, well, let's call it a more tolerant approach to sports betting. Ladbrokes, the British bookmaker, is taking bets on every single event at the Olympics, says company spokesman Nick Weinberg. All told, he says, British betting houses and online sites expect 10 million pounds of wagering on the Winter Games, a tenfold increase from the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. Still, Olympic betting action for British bookmakers pales when compared to wagering on sports like soccer or horse racing. Ladbrokes predicts up to a billion pounds of betting on this summer's World Cup soccer tournament.
So, what's the big Winter Olympics betting draw across the pond?
"From the British perspective, the most money is going on curling," says Weinberg.
Curling, a magnet for bettors? That's the game where the most urgent thing they do is sweep the ice with a broom. It's the game with a 54-year-old Olympian. It's the game that in Turin they have taken to calling "bocce on ice." There's some logic here since it was a big deal when Britain won the gold medal in women's curling at the 2002 Olympics. But Britain is also the country that embraces darts as a sport. In fact, Ladbrokes takes wagering on darts and even sponsors a major darts tournament.