Skip to Main Content

A history of Olympic betting

How would you like to have a god take an interest in your sports wagers?

Bettors who lived in ancient Greece had one: Hermes, a son of Zeus. Known for his playful and mischievous nature, he was said to have invented the “knucklebones”—dice made of bones with values etched into their sides. According to historians, “he was worshipped by gamblers in his capacity as god of luck and wealth.”

He was also one of the 12 gods of Mount Olympus, which is fitting since many ancient Greeks likely found themselves praying to Hermes while watching the Olympic Games—especially if they had money riding on the outcome.

For ancient Greeks, both rich and poor, the Olympics were the pinnacle of sports, culture and entertainment. And historians have found some of the earliest evidence of gambling activities in ancient Greek relics. Artworks and fragments of manuscripts depict people gambling on a variety of early Olympic sports, including horse races, foot races, wrestling and boxing.

Fast-forward 2,700 years, and we can see human interests haven’t changed all that much. The Olympic Games are still one of the great traditions of human culture, and people still like to place wagers on the outcomes of individual events.

Perhaps the only real difference is that when we bet on sports, we now know that winning and losing are functions of mathematical odds rather than the whims of a wing-footed deity.

Sports betting through the ages

As Greece’s golden age gave way to the Roman Empire, betting remained a mainstay of sports and entertainment, with everyone from common citizens to emperors wagering on the outcomes of physical competitions.

Laws were adopted to regulate how and when betting could take place. Laws such as the Lex Titia and Lex Publicia, which mandated that sports gambling only be allowed in events in which competitors showed strength, such as wrestling and running, as well as gladiator fights and chariot races.

In the middle ages, gambling on sports passed out of favour with ruling and religious authorities throughout Europe, but it returned with gusto during the Renaissance. King James I and King Charles I, both fans of equestrian events, worked to revive horse racing and are credited with making the English town of Newmarket the birthplace of modern thoroughbred horse racing in the first half of the 17th century.

One of the most noteworthy wagers of the time was a famous “carriage match” made between a pair of influential earls—and presided over by legal attorneys—who bet 1,000 guineas (close to half a million Canadian dollars, adjusted for inflation) on whether a carriage drawn by four horses could travel a 19-mile route in under an hour. It did, with more than six minutes to spare.

Wagers like these demonstrated the popularity of sports betting while also establishing a need for laws and regulations—including knowledgeable sportsbook makers capable of fairly calculating race odds—to ensure even-handedness and civility.

When the modern Olympic Games began in 1896, organized sports gambling had already emerged with the British Gambling Act of 1845, which set out the how, when and where of legal sports betting, which had to take place through registered bookmakers.

People have used sports betting to enhance their experience of watching the Games ever since their return, and sports gambling remains a key part of the Olympic audience experience. Bettors are just doing it in more modern and convenient ways, such as using mobile apps or placing a bet while stopping in at a store. Plus, players have access to resources that explain how bets work and provide clear and simple explanations of odds and payouts.

Your betting strategy for the Olympic Games

Whether you’re betting on an ancient Olympic event like sprinting or a marathon, or something newer like skateboarding or sport climbing, responsible gamblers start by doing their homework.

That means not only knowing teams’ and athletes’ strengths and weaknesses, but also how a sportsbook works. It pays to take the time to research and understand the differences between  system bets, single bets and parlay bets, how pre-match and live betting works, what it means if your bets are voided or pushed, and what the wager limits are for your chosen sports. It’s also crucial to understand the odds for each bet. For example, decimal odds—commonly used in Olympic betting—serve as a multiplier for how much you stand to win. Just multiply your bet by the odds number. Remember: The more you know, the wiser you’ll wager.

But that’s not all there is to modern sports betting. The goal is to have fun and to do that you need a plan. Start by creating a budget—one that you can afford—and then stick to it. Avoid falling into the trap of betting more in order to win more. And don’t expect to come out ahead. Winning is fun and exciting, but over time you’re likely to lose more often than not.

So as our athletes go for gold in Paris this summer, feel free to go for a little gold yourself. Even if you’re more likely to end up standing beside the podium than on top, there’s still plenty of fun to be had in giving it a shot.