Five-ring Circus

Liverpudlian Scalpers, Scam Web Sites, and Other Highlights of an Olympic-Sized Ticketing Fiasco

A man tries to sell a ticket to an Olympic event

The world’s top sprinters and I had this in common Saturday night: We all had a great view of Usain Bolt running away from us. My wife and I were in Section L of the National Stadium, at the head of the stretch, in Row 28 of the bottom deck. From there, Bolt was an imposing sight even before the men’s 100-meter race began—towering over the other finalists, his gold shoes gleaming in the stadium lights. Then came the part where Bolt started running, which was very soon before the part where Bolt stopped running, though in that brief interim he ended up all the way down the far end of the track. Then came a sort of confused mass hypnosis, 91,000 minds staggering together toward the same conclusion. He is … he just … the clock … nine point what? Point SIX??

Sometimes the hardest achievements seem deceptively simple. Getting the tickets to watch the men’s 100-meter finals, for instance. Last year, when the Beijing Organizing Committee opened its first round of ticket sales, I picked out the men’s 100 on the track calendar and submitted a request for good seats. A few hundred dollars on the credit card, a long and occasionally anxious wait through the winter and spring, a trip to the pickup site, and the tickets were in hand.

By the time the Olympics began, though, I was hoping to see more than just track. And getting into other events requires more hustle. Finding tickets in Beijing during the Games means a hunt through a retail and barter netherworld of friends, kindly and unkindly strangers, and predatory Web sites. If I really want to see synchronized swimming, I might eventually need to impersonate a Kazakh.

Officially, as you may have heard, the Olympics are sold out. But that long-ago lottery was the first stage in a convoluted and obscure ticket-distribution process—one that, if anyone ever fully understands it, could become the definitive case study in how not to distribute tickets.

The first-round lottery allowed buyers to apply for up to eight different sets of event tickets, with multiple fallback options in each slot. This was an invitation to brokers and other hoarder types to load up, while ordinary customers held back for fear of “winning” several thousand dollars’ worth of tickets at once. Then, with the horse out of the barn, the organizing committee tightened the rules for the next lottery: only two events, no alternative choices, no chance to shop for an array of events.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, blocks of tickets were being set aside for corporate sponsors and VIPs who might or might not use them. The result is that would-be spectators are scrounging for seats, even as organizers bus in squadrons of schoolchildren and volunteers to pack bodies into underfilled arenas.

This is not Athens, where an apathetic populace didn’t care to buy sports tickets. The Chinese public may be narrowly nationalistic in its rooting interests—witness the mass walkout at the National Stadium after hurdler Liu Xiang was injured—but between China’s huge field of athletes and the allure of seeing the fancy new arenas, demand was overwhelming. When tickets went for sale online on a first-come, first-served basis—this took place between Lottery 1 and Lottery 2—the system crashed irretrievably (and the head of ticketing vanished from the job). When walk-up windows opened to sell the last round of tickets, the lines stretched two miles and riot cops were deployed.

In Beijing, there was no clear way for the demand—now augmented by Olympic tourists—to meet and do business with the supply. The thousands of Americans and other foreigners who got fleeced by a fake ticketing Web site were in the vanguard of a customer base that’s been cut off from reliable information. (Remember: Officially, all the tickets are sold out.) A Chinese friend told me that a friend of his bought tickets to the U.S.-China men’s basketball preliminary for 3,000 RMB ($437)—a bargain, given that some sellers were asking for 10,000 or 20,000 RMB. The day of the game, though, the tickets never appeared. I’d given up on the U.S.-China game after an ad on Craigslist led to an offer of a ticket for $600, from a seller who said he had the tickets with him “in London/United Kingdom” and that we could do the sale “via TNT total safe and secure for both of us.”

I originally had visions of avoiding the scramble. For the games, I am registered with the Beijing International Media Center, the uncredentialed reporters’ off-site press center. Besides good deals on Baxi ice cream bars and screenings of Chinese movies, the center has a ticketing office—but after I’d prepared a conservative list of events I might like to see, the center announced that reporters could buy only one ticket for the whole Olympics, from a limited daily supply.

I decided to try for men’s basketball. On the evening of Aug. 6, the next day’s inventory sheet listed one seat for the Aug. 14 late session, when the U.S. would be playing. The office would start handing out numbers to journalists at 8:30 in the morning.

At 4:30 a.m., I crawled out of bed and hailed a cab in the dark. Only a skeleton crew of volunteers was at the media center, most of them dozing. But two bleary-eyed Chinese reporters were sitting outside the office, a young man and a woman. What were they there to buy? I asked. Swimming, the woman said. Basketball, the young man said.

When did you get here? I asked. Three a.m., he said.

Well, there were always the less glamorous events. A friend had bought extra tickets to the rowing preliminaries, far out in the countryside in Shunyi District, where we spent the first afternoon of Olympic competition squinting at a hazy stretch of water that resembled a parking lot. Another friend had extras for women’s soccer, a Nigeria-Brazil/Canada-Sweden doubleheader, so close to the action that our view of the far goal was partly obstructed by the canopy over the teams’ benches. The media center announced a backup program to sell remainders of its remainders, which allowed me to buy a pair of tickets to a men’s field-hockey match between China and Korea. (Connoisseurs of the amateur competitive spirit take comfort: Men’s field hockey is one event in which the Chinese sports machine has not built up a merciless gold-medal-quality program.)

Another reporter with a BIMC credential told me he’d found a Liverpudlian scalper outside the boxing site at Workers’ Gymnasium. He’d bought a ticket that day and gotten a number to call for more.

Workers’ Gymnasium is a short hop from home, so I tried my own luck on the next free afternoon. A thick-necked tout with receding ginger hair—the very same scalper, to go by the description—found me as soon as I stepped out of the cab. His friend had a ticket to the current session for 500 RMB, he said. I told him that sounded too high, and we talked shop for a while. There were dozens of scalpers in town for the occasion, he said, and the resale market was busy. The cops were no trouble at all. Swimming was tough to get, he said, as was anything with a lot of Aussies in it. It was important to get good seats, he said, because some of the upper-level stuff was terrible.

The view from my seat in the boxing arena

We settled on 300 RMB, and another Brit swung by and handed over the ticket. This was, I discovered, a 900 percent markup over face value. Inside the arena, ushers and signs directed me up and up again—to a seat in the second row from the top, literally behind the ring of national flags hanging from the arena’s upper rim. When I lifted my eyes from the ring far below, I was staring at the bottom halves of the flags of Ireland and, unsettlingly, Georgia. The video screen was up there, too. On it, a boxer’s uniform read ENIARKU, because I was seeing the back side of the projection.

Through the grapevine, word was spreading of another option: a Web site called CoSport that was an authorized reseller for bodies including the United States and European Union. People had bought tickets through it, and they’d actually arrived. I logged onto the site on a day that China’s best boxer, Zou Shiming, had a bout scheduled. The layout was primitive, the language was shaky, and my browser warned me that the site certificate might not be valid. I called someone who had told me about CoSport—it had really worked? She had gotten into an event with the ticket? It had; she had. There was a ticket available for Zou’s session. I typed in my credit-card information and crossed my fingers.

The extent of the scam appeared to be the $30 service charge on an $18 ticket. My seat was low down in the first section, by the red corner. I could see everything. If I turned my head and squinted way up, I could even see my previous seat.

But CoSport presented less a solution than a new variant of the same struggle. Tickets would appear in the inventory, then disappear when I clicked on them. Events would switch from unavailable to available to unavailable again. For hours, the site would announce that it had reached the “maximim number of users” and freeze me out. But then one morning, after I had all but given up on the site, I was suddenly able to rack up single tickets for three straight days: Chinese men’s basketball, Chinese women’s basketball, and a full day of the elusive Ping-Pong. Ping-Pong!

And for those who dread e-commerce, there is always charity. Thanks to the botched, apply-for-everything lottery system, lots of people have more tickets than they can use. While I waited for a friend to join me at field hockey, I slouched in the sun on a block of concrete near the gate. Two separate passers-by took pity and offered me their extras.

The hobo technique is less likely to work for the popular venues. But I still have hope for getting into the Water Cube. One of my wife’s co-workers discovered that our neighborhood hotel is an authorized ticket reseller for Kazakhstan’s Olympic committee and was somehow able to buy aquatic event tickets there. After Ping-Pong, I think I’ll swing by and see if the Kazakhs have any to spare.