And so, as I alighted at the train station here Monday morning on my way to the offices of the British bookmaker William Hill, I resolved to answer the question that countless parents ask themselves at swimming pools and gym classes and tracks around the world: what are the odds that my child could someday be an Olympian, too?
As it turns out, William Hill actually has a department for things like this. The novelty market, it turns out, is quite extensive. Odds cover a variety of topics, including reality television, politics and the future athletic accomplishments of toddlers. Rob Dixon is responsible for coming up with the prices.
“He watches a lot of trash telly,” Rupert Adams, a spokesman for William Hill, said as Dixon laughed but did not disagree. The TV market began with bets on who shot J. R. on “Dallas,” but truly took off a few years ago when William Hill offered odds on a season of “Big Brother.” Now, wagering on shows like “Pop Idol” or the British version of “Dancing With the Stars” is big business; in 2011, the book took £1.3 million worth of bets (or a little over $2 million) on “The X-Factor.”
Dixon does not have a background in statistics or math. He always had an affinity for betting, though, and when he saw William Hill advertising for a job as a telephonist — someone who takes wagers over the phone — he jumped at it.
Now he is the nominal expert on all things offbeat. William Hill has offered odds on these questions: Will Lady Gaga show up to next year’s Grammys in a dress made of condoms? (10 to 1). Will a flying saucer appear over the opening ceremony at the London Games? (1,000 to 1). Who will win the next Miss World pageant? (Miss Equatorial Guinea and Miss Belize are among the long shots, at 200 to 1.)
Around Valentine’s Day, there are often bets available for which celebrity couples will marry or divorce, though Adams acknowledged the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes split caught them unaware. “That wasn’t offered,” he said. “We thought they were solid.”
The history of novelty betting in Britain can be traced back nearly a half century, Adams said, to a man named David Threfall, who in 1964 requested — and received — odds of 1,000 to 1 on a man walking on the moon by Jan. 1, 1970. Threfall, obviously, turned his £10 ticket into £10,000, giving rise to an ever-growing legion of bettors who are interested in betting on the obscure, unlikely and (sometimes) unimaginable. All they have to do is ask.
And ask they do. Betting is a prevalent part of British culture, with recent estimates indicating 73 percent of Britons gamble at least once a year. Competition among bookmakers is fierce, and the industry — which also includes companies like Ladbrokes and Coral — is expected to handle up to £100 million (almost $157 million) in wagers during the Games. Novelty bets are seen as a publicity vehicle in a thriving market, which is why William Hill generally is willing to offer odds on almost anything. But there are a few rules.
“No court cases, no wars, no plagues or famines or things like that,” Adams said, noting that William Hill did not offer odds on when Osama bin Laden would be captured or killed, despite considerable interest.
Even with the restrictions, there is plenty of fertile ground to be cultivated by the creative bettor. Weather — will there be a white Christmas? Will temperatures reach a record high during summer? — is a frequent topic of betting, and Piers Corbyn, a British meteorologist, “made a fortune off us,” Adams said.
On the other side of that are the bettors who continually wager on the confirmed presence of aliens or the Loch Ness monster. William Hill is happy to take their money and even has a relationship with a scientist who is deemed responsible for verifying the existence of mythical creatures.