LONDON -- Psst. Have you been at home watching the Olympics and thinking to yourself: "Wow, sure wish that I could bet on gymnastics in my neighborhood?"
No problem. You can.
You just have to move to the neighborhood where I've been living the past two weeks.
The world keeps chasing homogenization. There is a McDonald's between the canals in Venice. Next door to the Olympic Park here, you'll find an immense new shopping mall with a Foot Locker, an Apple store and a Sunglass Hut.
Yet I can happily report that at least one uniquely British tradition endures. In nearly every retail district, you'll find a legal betting shop where average citizens regularly drop in to put money down on their favorite horses, soccer teams or (for these three weeks) on the modern pentathlon.
"Maybe 10 or 12 a day come in for the Olympics," said Rochelle Hedman, the cheery woman who greeted me from behind the counter this week at the nearest gambling parlor.
"What do they bet on?" I asked her.
"Mostly boxing, gymnastics and judo," Hedman said.
So naturally, I bet on swimming.
Specifically, I wagered five British pounds -- about $7.50 -- on Bay Area swimmer Scott Weltz, at 25-to-1 odds to win his 200-meter breaststroke race. (A notice warns: "BETS STAND EVEN IF YOUR SELECTION DOES NOT SWIM.")
Later that day, Weltz lost. Don't worry, Scott. I'm still in your corner. Although next time, I might instead bet on you
All of this is purely for research purposes, understand. I accidentally discovered our local William Hill outlet -- it's the country's largest chain of betting shops -- while on a grocery run near the college campus where our plucky Bay Area News Group delegation is staying.
The William Hill store that I patronized is located in a small mall, tucked between the grocery store and a bank. The place is neither plush nor a dump. Opens at 8 a.m., closes at 10 p.m. There is a bank of television monitors and a bulletin board that lists odds, plus a few slot-type machines. The midday crowd is from the diverse surrounding area, mostly male but of all skin colors and ages.
In England, the gambling industry is heavily regulated. No kids allowed inside the shops. No alcohol served. But plenty of the punters -- British slang for gamblers -- still stick around to watch the horse or dog races and monitor their investments. During soccer season, folks often place their bets and adjourn to the pub across the mall and watch the games.
The debate over gambling in America, particularly sports gambling, is ongoing. The NCAA campaigns against any legal form of wagering on college games. The NFL realizes that millions bet on pro football, but the league, at least officially, doesn't condone it. And the perils of gambling addiction are well-chronicled.
Yet in most American cities, illegal bookies thrive and usually avoid taxes. According to the William Hill website -- the company is named after the man who founded it in 1934 -- the corporation handled more than $28 billion in bets during the 2011 calendar year and paid a healthy chunk of it back to the government. Seems to me the British way is at least worth considering.
Natalie Coughlin believes so, too. The gold-medal swimmer from Cal and Lafayette was asked here last week if she might feel, you know, icky about the fact that all over England, people might have thousands of dollars riding on one of her races.
"I don't have an issue with betting on the Olympics," Coughlin answered. "Anything that generates interest for all of these sports is good."
The danger, of course, is that an Olympian might bet against himself or herself and purposely lose a race. But there has never been a Games gambling scandal. American athletes here were warned to stay away from the betting shops. That won't prevent their families from walking in to lay down some cash. But at least there's a record of it on the company books that can be examined, not the case with illegal bookies. That probably has helped British authorities bust up a few soccer and betting scandals over the years.
Viewing the premises, it does indeed seem to be a local gathering place. Online betting is a major part of British gambling these days, but many people still love the personal touch of the retail stores. Hedman's district manager once received a touching note after a man's funeral from his surviving son. The son wanted to thank William Hill employees for being so nice to his father, who lived alone and found his greatest pleasure in hanging out at the betting shop each day, nursing a few wagers and socializing.
Upon hearing that sweet story, I decided to do more socializing myself -- this time along with photographer Karl Mondon, to film a video for the BANG websites. And again, strictly for professional purposes, I placed one more bet.
I had learned my lesson about swimming. So this time, I went for a sure thing. I put another five quid down on a three-race parlay involving Usain Bolt, the world-record sprinter. I'll collect on my 2-to-1 wager if Bolt wins gold medals in the upcoming 100 meters, 200 meters and 400-meter relay with his Jamaican teammates.
If I win, you'll find me over at the pub, buying a round.
Contact Mark Purdy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5092.