Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Handicapping the Handicapped

If you’re instinctively bothered by betting on the Special Olympics, you should pay attention.

(Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

This week sees the sixteenth Special Olympics World Games at Berlin. Seven thousand athletes and their trainers have traveled to the gray city to compete; the games will be televised in the United States on the broadcast channel ABC, on the cable channel ESPN3, and on the streaming service ESPN+. The Games forecast 300,000 spectators in the week of competitions.

The Special Olympics is one of the few popular institutions that enjoy a sterling public image. It is also one of the few institutions dedicated to the old-fashioned amateurist idea that virtue can be pursued and attained for its own good by anyone, irrespective of native ability. (In both respects it differs markedly from the regular modern Olympics, whose integrity and amateurism have always been equivocal and dubious.) 


The World Games, the summit of the local, regional, and national circuits of the Special Olympics, showcase feats of athleticism that not only put your poor correspondent’s modest physical prowess to shame, but also display the best sort of humanistic triumph. Excellence is within reach for all—which is, of course, a different and far more humane standard than mere identity of outcome.

Discipline, deeds of strength, and the soaring ambition of man’s spirit aren’t enough for everyone. If you need an extra jolt, you can make your way to an online sportsbook to lay wagers on the Special Olympians. BetOnline, an Antiguan-registered gambling company, made a splash by announcing that it would be taking bets on individual event outcomes and on aggregate medal counts. Other betting sites are offering similar wagers.

An unusually cretinous and subliterate soft feature for Forbes lays out the case in favor, parroting BetOnline’s statements almost word for word: “It will be interesting to see what reactions come of this barrier-breaking occurrence in sports history, but the bottom line is that as gambling continues to evolve on a global scale, athletes who might otherwise be ignored in Berlin next week are going to get a little extra attention. Gambling not only closes doors to those who become addicted to it, it opens doors to those who would otherwise be overlooked.” 

Well, then. Incredibly, it bears pointing out that there are plenty of things that can be used to draw attention to an event that perhaps ought not be so used—exotic dancers, bear-baiting, flash mobs. Attention is also not quite the same as revenue. BetOnline has pledged a $10,000 donation to a charity benefiting the developmentally disabled; this is hardly the same as giving the Special Olympics a cut of the vig—not that this would be especially desirable either. (The press office for the Berlin games did not respond to The American Conservative’s request for comment.)

There is a hierarchy of justifications used for liberalizing gambling; there is a similar hierarchy of problems associated with it. I address both at greater length in this feature for TAC’s latest print issue, but the short form is as follows. Historically, the privilege of running a gambling concern is granted to historically significant industries or groups that cannot otherwise easily support themselves—industries like horse breeding and racing, groups like charitable organizations and reservation-bound Indians. The new boosters of looser gambling regulation argue that betting will be easier to regulate and its concomitant ills easier to address in a legal environment and that it will boost league and state revenues. Some also argue, libertarianishly, that it is simply none of the government’s business.


The problems associated with a broader gambling regime are several. First is the threat to the integrity of a given game—this is a particularly strong concern for sports betting, and is why the Major League Baseball Players Association and, until recently, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell opposed the spread of sportsbook. (Skeptics of sportsbook legalization may soon see vindication as cases of players betting on games slowly start to come to light.) Second is the cluster of social dysfunctions associated with gambling concerns, foremost of which is gambling addiction itself. Third is the effect on groups who previously relied on the economic rents from a highly regulated gambling industry. (Some Indian tribes have been pauperized by the recent explosion in legal gambling.)

So we arrive at the question of what benefits are derived from allowing Special Olympics sportsbook. It bears no direct benefit for the organization or the athletes; it creates incentives for compromising the games’ unimpeachable integrity and beauty; it will encourage some number of ruined people to continue to make ruinous choices. No state entity—and certainly no American state entity—will derive appreciable revenues from it. At best, it will encourage some number of anhedonic gamesters to turn the bar TV to ESPN3 for a minute or two. What’s a handful or a hundred or a thousand destroyed lives compared to a goosed audience number for ESPN3’s 2 p.m. Thursday broadcast?

One of the dominant processes—perhaps the thematic process—of modern life is breaking down complex systems so the bits can be sold piecemeal, cracking open the piggy bank marked “civilization” to take the bills and leave the change. As nicely detailed by our own John Hirschauer, a broadly temperate society deregulated cannabis use in a paroxysm of greed; now, society is not temperate, and, as it turns out, the profits are not much to write home about either. 

Gambling liberalization is no different. Can we build an industry around online betting on sports events? Yes, we can. Will it bring a host of social ills with it? Yes, it will. Will it destroy some historical industries and disadvantaged groups along the way? Yes, certainly. Will it especially help anyone besides the bookmaker? No, not really. Well, take the bills and leave the change.

In a rare case of taste and morality breaking out on the internet, many people on social media seem to think a Special Olympics sportsbook is crass and unsavory. They are right. Is it too much to hope that it makes them bring more jaundiced eyes to the gaming industry writ large?