Athletics Betting

Athletics Betting

The name Steve Prefontaine will ring a bell with most track and field devotees but it strikes a deafening and particularly painful chord with William Hill media relations director Graham Sharpe.

Prefontaine was an American middle-distance runner, who would have been among the favourites for 5,000m Olympics gold at the Montreal Games in 1976. The all-American boy was already a national record holder at every distance from 2,000m to 10,000m and a bright future awaited.

Just a few days after the 24-year-old had won the NCAA 5,000m race in 1975 he was killed in a car accident - though the news obviously didn't filter through to Hills, who priced him up for a forthcoming race.

"With so much access to information these days I doubt anything like that will ever happen again," said Sharpe, as the cold sweat was replaced with a dry smile.

If nothing else, this tale proved that pricing up what is effectively still a minority sport like athletics is nowhere near as straightforward as football, cricket or rugby.

At least the Prefontaine episode wasn't a costly one, though that hadn't been the case a few years earlier when a clued-up gang of Scandinavian punters emptied the tills of many British high street bookmakers.

Going into the 1972 Olympics dozens of Swedish shrewdies knew that long-distance machine Lasse Viren was virtually unbeatable over 5,000m and 10,000m. Many of those canny Vikings flew over to England specifically to back the Finn and filled their boots when their man broke the tape at odds of 6-1 for the shorter distance and 9-1 for the 10,000m.

Four years later at the Montreal Games the bookies were yet again caught unawares as the Swedish gang profited once more from their in-depth knowledge of track and field, a knowledge way beyond that of the odds-makers.

"Sophisticated punters would have had a big advantage over us in those days when 95 per cent of our ante-post department was geared to horse racing alone," Sharpe said.

Times have changed, but while a deceased runner is unlikely nowadays to feature in a book, athletics remains a sport where the very shrewd and very knowledgeable can still find an edge and layers are understandably wary.

That explains why, with the very odd exception, the only time you can bet on athletics is at the really big events such as the World Championships, the Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games, and even then you rarely find books on every discipline.

Stan James are an honourable exception. As something of an authority on track and field they price up, for example, Golden League meetings, which in 2004 consisted of six well-represented international meets across Europe culminating in the final in Monaco.

The caveat is that they offer only group betting on events, though Chris Edwards, one of the firm's two front-line athletics compilers, insists that it isn't out of fear of being chinned.

Athletics"The fact is that we don't always know who is going to be taking part because of injuries, late withdrawals or any number of other factors," he said. "But we offer the service because we like to think we know what we're doing. You've always got to be wary of the specialists having better inside knowledge, but it's a chance we're prepared to take, and we can always limit our liabilities.

"The beauty of something like Golden League competitions is that generally everybody is off because the prizes are so great, so the events tend to be genuine."

The Olympic Games is inevitably where the odds-setters get more jittery than usual. It's no formality deciphering the heats in track and field events and there is the added complication of how to weather the patriotic plunges on favoured British performers.

Athens 2004 was no exception. Despite Britain winning only two individual gold medals and despite Paula Radcliffe, one of the hottest home favourites, flopping in floods of tears in the marathon, the bookies still had sweaty palms.

The culprit was Kelly Holmes, the new golden girl of British athletics following her wonderful 800m/1,500m double. Saturation coverage - on terrestrial telly rather than satellite - meant millions of people took 'Our Kelly' to their hearts, punters among them.

Steve Freeth said: "When Holmes went to the line for the final of the 800m she was 12-1 to win the 1,500m. But by the time of that second final a few days later she was as short as 1-2."

AthleticsOverall, though, most bookmakers registered profits and the pick of their successes was the 100m final.

Maurice Greene and Asafa Powell were deemed the big two and most of the money was for them whereas unheralded American, Justin Gatlin, was a 14-1 outsider before the first heats. By the time of the final there was still a belief that the jewellery was heading for the necks of Greene, Powell, another American, Shawn Crawford, or Francis Obikwelu. Gatlin went off at 25-1 and 9.85 seconds later it wasn't only the 22-year-old New Yorker who was doing cartwheels.

"When you get a skinner in the biggest event you're well on your way to making a profit," said Nigel Seeley of Stan James.