YOUR correspondent, like many other journalists in Asia, decided to skip the Olympics. Daunted by the cost of hotels, the scarcity of tickets and the oppressive security, and defeated by the byzantine process surrounding visas and credentials, he made other plans.
But as the games began, word slipped out that circumstances had changed: too many people stayed away. An internet search turned up a hotel that happened to be new, lovely, and empty. Stragglers were said to be getting into events.
Even the visa situation was softening. After playing tough, Chinese authorities suddenly seemed to realise they had a party but no guests. The visa-issuing office in Hong Kong, normally a human parking lot seething with rage and frustration, had not only opened a help desk, they had even (sporadically) staffed it. China was cracking open its door. Your correspondent grabbed his 12-year-old son and leapt through.
We landed in the Olympics’ true battlefield: the scramble for seats. No one knew how this game was played. Where did people and tickets come from? There were rumours of students bussed in to fill unwanted, empty seats and yet at the same time, of tickets from allotments granted to Olympic committees in third-world countries sold for fortunes.
As always in China, conditions were different for VIPs. Whoever could squeeze into this group (and this was a constant source of friction since it appeared that most people attending the Olympics seemed to think they belonged there) were driven to events in traffic-free lanes, served excellent food, and given entry to everything.
Core VIPs included corporate sponsors, athletes, and press with credentials. Access to this group was not as impossible as it might seem. A very nice surgeon from California sponsored a small African team for $20,000, earning an American tax deduction, tickets to everything, and the gratitude of a nation.
But there were a lot of poseurs too. The surgeon witnessed many seemingly important people being escorted from the America-China basketball game attended by China’s President Hu Jintao and George Bush (who had the good sense to use the pretext of a pre-Olympic press conference to ask for tickets).
For the absolutely unimportant people, Beijing seemed a vast trading floor. Hotel concierges kept long lists of guest requests and even filled some of them (at a price). Outside the venues, the same ticket could change hands for nothing or $1,000 in a matter of seconds. Scoring seats required quick feet and an eye for the desperate seller. Wearing a shirt with a seller’s preferred team seemed to produce a sporadic patriotic discount.
Officially, Americans and Europeans were required to buy all seats through a website run by CoSport, an odd company that somehow obtained a very valuable long-term Olympic ticket concession. The website was occasionally helpful; usually it was jammed and useless.
The easiest tickets to buy were, not surprisingly, for the events no one wanted to see. Looking around the gymnasium at Beijing University’s Aeronautics & Astronautics School, your correspondent realised that he and his son were likely the only Westerners to experience the thrill of women’s weightlifting. People who found themselves on CoSport’s site when supply was plentiful could go wild: one friend bought $2,000 worth of tickets, reasoning that whatever he didn’t want, someone else would.
Wary of a growing secondary market, the Chinese made threatening announcements about scalping, but no one, including the police, seemed to know exactly what that entailed. CoSport charged vastly more than the price printed on the ticket, as did China Travel, the official Chinese distribution agent.
The definition of scalping seemed to be whatever the police decided it was, which had an immediate impact on the market. One trading hub emerged at the bus depot near the iconic Natatorium, the blue aquatic cube, but it proved inconvenient and too heavily patrolled. Another arose outside the Beitucheng subway station. After 100 people were reported to have been arrested in the vicinity and signs posted to discourage further sales, people met there, agreed to terms, then exchanged tickets for cash at nearby locations.
And a number of high-end ticket brokers set up temporary operations in the posh office towers next to the nice hotels. Many discreetly announced their presence on websites like Craigslist (which, for the record, asks that tickets sold through its classified ads cost no more than face value).
At one well-stocked broker near the Grand Hyatt, a seat for the swimming events went for $1,500, baseball $250, and fencing $55. None of the customers seemed unhappy. “It’s all about taking care of clients,” advised a helpful young man from Texas. Behind him, on a white board, was the phone number of the American Embassy. It was not clear if the embassy was a customer, a place to call if the police barged in, or both.
6 months ago