Friday, Aug. 8, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Enjoy the Beijing Games, but forget about betting on them in Nevada sports books.
State law prohibits casinos from accepting wagers on the Olympics, a ban that can be traced to 2000 and Nevada’s fight to keep betting on college sports legal in its sports books.
In part to pacify supporters of an imbecilic congressional bill — including, incidentally, Sen. John McCain — who sought to outlaw college sports betting in Nevada, state officials opted to stress that betting on other forms of amateur sports would be made illegal.
Olympics betting took the brunt of this blow, although wagering on events such as the Little League World Series (which attracted negligible action) and high school sports (which were never on the betting boards) officially got the ax as well.
The state Gaming Control Board’s Regulation 22.120 also set up a decent punch line for self-styled wits: Pointing out the newly minted Olympic bribery scandal, the imminent Olympic skating judging scandal and the countless Olympic doping scandals, some observers suggested that the fine institution of legalized sports betting would do well to avoid an enterprise as seedy as the Olympics anyway.
Before 2000, betting action on the Olympics in Las Vegas sports books was a spotty proposition at best.
Neither bookmakers nor bettors ever cared much about handball, for example, or the giant slalom.
But every so often an event came along that grabbed the attention of gamblers.
Former oddsmaker Scott Schettler, who ran the Stardust sports book in the 1980s, recalls posting betting lines involving the U.S. men’s basketball team when the Cold War was in full effect.
“At the Stardust, we took bets on Olympic basketball, including the USA against Russia,” Schettler said. “We were hesitant to do it at first, though, because we didn’t want to put ourselves in a position where we would have to root for the Russians” to win money from gamblers.
In fact, Schettler and his team of oddsmakers at the Stardust ended up setting a line that served to discourage, rather than generate, action.
“It was a sensitive situation because the Cold War was going on,” Schettler said. “We skewed the price (betting line) so that people had to bet on Russia if they wanted to bet at all, because there was no way in hell we (bookmakers) wanted to be rooting for Russia. Not in that climate.
“It wasn’t a big decision at all, because I don’t think many people wanted to bet on Russia.”
As author Anthony Holden wrote in “Big Deal,” hard-core Las Vegas gamblers of that era were either staunchly apolitical or somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.
That was certainly the case at the Stardust, where grizzled horseplayers stood, hand on heart, for the national anthem in the morning.
Schettler also remembers scruffy sports bettors in Reno standing and cheering — while cursing Russia — when the space shuttle Columbia’s successful 1981 trip was shown on TV in the sports book.
“You would have had to come into the Stardust wearing a mask to make a bet on Russia,” Schettler said. “It would be like betting on Iraq today.”
Even into the 1990s, post-Cold War, the occasional Olympic event would capture the imagination of the betting public.
The 1992 U.S. basketball Dream Team won by margins such as 32, 44, 51 and 68 points — although it was no bargain on the betting board as huge point spreads reflected the disparity in talent between Jordan & Co. and their opponents.
Figure skating took center stage in 1994 thanks to the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding circus, although Oksana Baiul of Ukraine won the gold medal in that competition as a 2-1 betting favorite. Kerrigan was the second choice at a consensus price of 7-2, with the odds on long shot Harding upward of 10-1 on the Strip.
The 1996 version of the basketball Dream Team also cruised to a gold medal, though bettors had to risk from $30 to $75 just to make $1 on the U.S. to win it.
At offshore and foreign sports books that still accept wagers on the Olympics, the U.S. men’s basketball team is again the top choice in the 2008 Summer Games, but not by such a lopsided margin.
The U.S. is a favorite in the range of minus-330 (risk $3.30 to win $1) to minus-450 to win the gold medal, and a favorite of 33 1/2 points in Sunday’s game against China.