The Olympics have begun and they're in China, so, you know, it should be a rather fascinating world event, if you're into fascinating world events. And we are proud to welcome back our Deadspin Beijing Bureau, our own trio of correspondents living in China and reporting on everything they see, Olympics related and otherwise. In late July, BOCOG proudly announced that all of the 6.8 million tickets for the Beijing Olympics were sold out. Though the Bureau arrived ticketless in Beijing, our scant connections and some random goodwill have gotten us into a few events. At the venues, after we’ve passed by the smiling army of blue and white clad volunteers, metal detectors, and x-ray baggage scanners, we’ve noticed that, once safely in our seats, quite a few others are still available.It’s not news, exactly, that some Olympic events aren’t well attended; it’s admittedly hard to get jacked up for the kayak slalom. At the Athens Games in 2004, only about two-thirds of the 5.3 million tickets were sold, much to the Greek organizing committee’s embarrassment. To avoid a similar fiasco, Beijing organizers intentionally set ticket prices low making them affordable for average Chinese citizens and, to the chagrin of overseas sports fans, limited how many tickets would be available to foreign visitors. So, um, where is everyone? Well, BOCOG offered about 40 percent of all event tickets available to the public - a low, though not unprecedented, amount. Knowledge of this might have annoyed the sweaty 50,000 who stormed ticket offices last month during the final round of sales. The other, publicly unavailable “piao” were given out as freebies to Communist Party officials, Olympic sponsors and IOC members.
Aside from the thousands of tickets never made available to the public, a number of overseas ticket-purchasers had their Olympic vacation plans thwarted by the slippery folks at China's visa office. Since most tickets have a face value between $4 and $100 USD, jilted ticketholders likely haven't bothered to claim refunds, and plenty of lonely tickets are waiting at will call in offices throughout Beijing. Thousands of tickets were also scooped up by agencies that overestimated their demand, and are now stuck with them. We were recently tipped about an agent sitting on a vast reserve of unsold tickets. The agent, desperate to get rid of his stock, sells passes each night to the next day’s events at a local sports bar … for face value. This operation goes down in a sort of amazing multistory sports bar that can only be compared to a lo-fi ESPN Zone (except for the random Montreal Expos relics). On Tuesday night we went to the bar without knowing how to find the mythic salesman, but word of his arrival had spread fast; seemingly half the patrons were there to get them some Olympics tickets. Around the corner from a golf simulator, a miniature basketball court and a batting cage was a rotund fella bellied up to the bar, dripping in sweat from satisfying the mass of Westerners screaming for tickets. He was sick of everyone. The other way to get tickets is to simply be scalped outside of venues, like one might at any sporting event. The Bureau decided to take in some boxing at Worker's Gymnasium the other day, and outside the arena there were plenty of shady-looking locals with tickets both real and blatantly fake for sale, but none would budge from their initial quote of 300 RMB (for a 30 RMB face value). Also running around with a handful of tickets was an irritatingly energetic man who must have been a professional scalper. He appeared to hail from greater Britain, spoke incredibly fast and sounded sort of like a Welsh carnival barker under a deluge of amphetamines. DBB: How much for a ticket? Scalper: 500local DBB: That's way too high. Scalper: Wellwhat'syourbudget? DBB: Don't know, not 500. Scalper: Tellmeyourbudget,son. DBB: Around face value Scalper: (Walking away) I'dratherrip’emupthansellthemtoyouforthat. And so the man turned his back on the Bureau, flipped his arm up at us, and yelled, “I'DRATHERTEARTHEMAPART!” The official word on scalping is that it’s against Chinese law and is strictly prohibited. But with eager buyers and conspicuously empty seats, enforcement is understandably lax. Scalpers and their potential customers congregate outside venues and Olympic subway stations in full view of police and Olympic volunteers. While poorly attended events are not without precedent, at the Beijing Games even the Olympic Green, normally the flashpoint of activity in Olympic towns, is devoid of visitors… because they are locked out. From the Wall Street Journal:
In past Olympics like Athens and Sydney, the Olympics Green was a gathering place for thousands of people, filled with restaurants and live music. In Beijing, thousands of people stand behind fences outside the venues and the Green with no way to get inside. Legions of people who swap pins, a popular Olympics tradition that is usually a fixture on the Olympics Green, are camped outside the Media Center next to waiting taxi cabs in the summer heat.
Sponsors who spent millions of dollars on massive ads and hospitality tents inside the village are understandably perturbed at overbearing Beijing, as their fun zones are empty, their ads unseen and their free crap uncollected. To us, the poor attendance at events, the ghost town around the Olympic Green, and the pissed-off sponsors who spent millions creating shiny and now deserted crappy corporate areas boils down to a recurring theme in both the run-up to and now during the Beijing Games: for the organizers, security trumps all else. Less than a third of Beijing’s predicted 500,000 visitors have swung by, due to visa restrictions and other hassles, costing the city millions of dollars in tourist revenue. BOCOG would rather a deserted but protest-free Olympic Green than a crowded and loose-lipped one… with satisfied sponsors happily watching over. Beijing, as always, wants to have their cake and eat it; they’d like their arenas filled to capacity with polite fans from around the globe, all disinclined to protest. And having shut out eager, legitimate ticket purchasers and having doled out hordes of tickets to disinterested corporate partners, they may have – in the words of the glistening, portly salesman at the bar – “fucked up.”