LONDON (Reuters) - Would you bet on Queen Elizabeth lighting the Olympic flame? Or a UFO appearing above the opening ceremony? Or maybe on Usain Bolt winning the men’s 100 meter race?
With the London Olympics fast approaching, Britons are happily combining two of their favorite pastimes: sports and betting - no matter how ludicrous some of the bets.
“It is deep in the British psyche to have a bit of a flutter when it comes to sports. Sports and betting almost go hand-in-hand in this country,” said Joe Crilly, a spokesman from bookmaker William Hill.
Less than two months away from kickoff, bookmakers are starting to close their books on the most popular bet so far - who will light the flame, the symbol of the Olympic Games, at the opening ceremony on July 27.
The identity of the person who runs the final stretch with the Olympic torch after a 70-day relay is always a highlight at the opening extravaganza. China’s former champion gymnast Li Ning was awarded that honor in Beijing in 2008; at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron in an emotional show as he struggled with Parkinson’s disease.
Bookmakers William Hill, Ladbrokes, Stan James and Coral all agreed the favorite for that coveted task in London, with odds of 1-3, is former rower Steve Redgrave, 50, Britain’s most successful Olympian who won five gold medals from 1984 to 2000.
Bets were also running on the 83-year-old Roger Bannister, who made history as the first man to run the four-minute mile in 1954; Kelly Holmes, the retired British runner who won two gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics; and football star David Beckham.
“We also took some bets on Tom Daley at 16-1, Prince William at 66-1 and, incredibly, the queen at 500-1,” said Stan James spokesman Rory Jiwani.
William Hill has taken some bets on whether London Mayor Boris Johnson would have a mishap when he runs with the Olympic torch, setting his notoriously wild hair on fire, and has odds of 5-2 on it raining on the night of the opening ceremony.
But spokesman Crilly said the weirdest bet yet was a 15 pound ($23) wager that a UFO would appear above the Olympic Stadium on the night of the opening ceremony. The odds? A massive payout at 1000-1.
“It is mainly Brits really getting into the spirit of things as the Olympics draw closer and having fun,” said Crilly. “Once the torch arrived on these shores, we have seen people getting involved in the Olympics and betting not just on novelty bets.”
Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter and world record holder, is currently the favorite with odds of 4-7 to win the Olympics showpiece event, the men’s 100 meter race, while fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake is second favorite with odds of 3-1.
Most bookmakers were also running bets on which country would top the gold medal table when the Olympics close on August 12.
Coral spokesman David Stevens said the Olympics were not usually a major betting event but interest was likely to be higher at the London Games due to Britons’ love of gambling.
The most recent independent report by the Britain’s government-sponsored Gambling Commission on gambling participation showed that nearly three quarters of British adults, or 73 percent, had gambled in 2010 compared to 68 percent in 2007.
The Association of British Bookmakers estimates that bookmakers contribute 3 billion pounds ($4.62 billion) annually to the UK economy, which is about 0.5 percent of gross domestic product.
“It will be the biggest Olympics in betting terms but this is starting from a very low base,” said Stevens.
“The Olympics are being held in a nation where betting is a part of everyday life. The real activity will kick off in the fortnight leading up to Games and then during the Games but we’re a bit in the dark over how much interest we will see.”
Editing by Alessandra Rizzo