I arrived in Beijing at the Olympics on Sunday, exactly one week before the end of the games, with no tickets, and not much of a clue on how to get them. But it didn’t take more than a few minutes on the streets to figure out where to buy tickets — albeit at ridiculously inflated prices. Right now, Beijing is a ticket scalper’s paradise.
Months ago, the Chinese reported that all the tickets to every event had been SOLD OUT. There wasn’t an Olympic ticket to spare — partly because of the relatively low prices the Chinese government set for the tickets, and partly because of the overwhelming demand of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens itching to see the games in their home country. (Quite the contrast from the Athens games of 2004, when the ridiculously high price of tickets resulted in thousands of unsold tickets.)
But once the Beijing Olympics began, mysteriously, there were hundreds of empty seats at all but the most popular events.
Watching from my hostel in eastern Taiwan two weeks ago, I couldn’t believe that there were so many vacant spots. I had been hoping to go to the Beijing for quite some time, but my Olympic dreams came crashing down when I heard about the difficulties of getting a Chinese visa and the complete lack of tickets.
But seeing that the opportunity to attend the Games was clearly there, I decided on the spur of the moment that I had best get my kiester into one of those spots. A few days later, I caught a plane to Hong Kong to get my China visa, and a few days after that, I was trolling the gleaming streets of Beijing, looking for Olympics tickets.
There are certain places where the ticket scalpers congregate — mostly at the unsurveiled public walkways on the way to the Olympic venues, and especially near the security checkpoints to enter the main Olympic Green and National Stadium. The first hotspot I happened upon was at the Beitucheng subway stop, the transfer station leading to the new subway line made especially for the Olympics. (All of the photos in this post were taken at Beitucheng.)
Other scalper strongholds include the foot promenade leading to the Olympic green, the sidewalk leading up to the Workers’ Stadium, and outside any of the smaller venues in the hour leading up to an event. All of these spots have one thing in common — they’re littered with “NO SCALPING” signs, which are blatantly disregarded:
The scalpers, of course, set up right next to the warning signs, and the police did nothing about it. In fact, I even caught one police officer not only ignoring the blatant scalping…but actually shopping for tickets! (See below, on the left…)
Most of the people selling tickets were not the prototypical scalper — you know, the seedy guy with dark sunglasses and a trenchcoat, hawking hundreds of unfairly bought tickets in a dark alley next to the concert arena. These were regular Chinese men and women with just a few tickets they’d bought for themselves, who had probably never scalped a ticket in their lives. And seeing that they could sell their tickets for many times the purchase price, they decided they’d rather make a few thousand extra Yuan than attend the events. They were just taking advantage of a bull market and rampant demand. (I don’t blame them.)
The market value for most tickets was around 3 – 4 times the ticket price — but the cheaper tickets (30 – 80 RMB, or $4 to $12 American) generally sold in the neighborhood of 200 to 500 Yuan. I purchased a 40RMB ticket to the BMX cycling qualifying rounds from a guy for 200 Yuan, after haggling him down from his initial offering of 400. I also bought a 50RMB Modern Pentathlon ticket for 300RMB, after talking the guy down from 500RMB.
Sure, I bought for five or six times the ticket price, after a log of bargaining, but $29 to see BMX Cycling and $44 to see the Modern Pentathlon seemed like a pretty good deal. Those tickets were underpriced to begin with, and China is cheap in general if you’re using American dollars.
The more popular events, however, were much more ridiculous. For any of the Finals, or for a night of various “Athletics” (track and field events) in the main stadium, the asking price was usually 3000 to 4000 RMB. That’s $350 – $500 American.
The highest price I heard was 8000RMB for the final night of Basketball — or $1176. Sure, I like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James — but not enough to pay well over a grand to see Team USA invariably take home the gold.
I wasn’t going to pay that much, but I figured that I had already gone out of my way and spent a lot of money to make it to the Olympics, so I shouldn’t skirt on the tickets and only see lame events. (I’m pretty good at rationalizing.)
I ended up paying 1000RMB ($147) for tickets to the Women’s Football Final (two soccer games, one of which was Team USA vs. Brazil for the gold); and 2000RMB ($294) for an almost front-row ticket to a 5 hour block of Athletics in the main Olympic stadium, including the men’s Pole Vault final, the Women’s Long Jump, Women’s 5000m run, the 4×400 Qualifying Rounds for both sexes, the Men’s 4×100 Relay, the final two events of the Men’s Decathlon, and more.
I also made a last-minute purchase of a 500RMB ($73) ticket for the Women’s Handball finals.
The language barrier wasn’t much of an issue — I would walk around, peering at the tickets people were holding up — and ask “how much?” in Mandarin, one of the four or five phrases I have memorized. They’d say some gobbeldygook back to me in Chinese, apparently some sort of number, and then I’d hand them a pen and paper and gesture for them to write down their asking price. (Sometimes instead, they used their cell phones to type out the prices.) I’d haggle back by writing my offer down, always less than half of what they wanted, no matter what. Usually I got the tickets for 40 – 75% of the initial price.
Oh, and not all the scalpers were Chinese:
One of the things I was worried about initially was counterfeit tickets (after all, this is China), but I never heard any stories about people getting burned by counterfeits. Each of the tickets have a magnetic ID chip, use tons of colors, and have a hologram in the corner, so they’d be tough to fake, so I guess it worked.
The only story I heard was about a Swiss guy who bought an expired ticket (from the previous day) that had already had its stub torn off. The seller convinced him that the event had been rescheduled due to rain. Moron. That was completely the Swiss patsy’s fault, if you ask me!
Here are some of the tickets I bought:
And here are a few more pics:
All in all, a pretty shining example of microeconomics, if I do say so myself!
UPDATE (August 22nd):
I’ve become a scalper myself.
It started when I decided to sell my Men’s Pentathlon ticket, and decided to first ask for buyers in the lounge of the hostel where I’m staying. It’s currently full of rich, lazy Europeans, and I was able to make a 100RMB profit on it (that’s almost $15). I sold the ticket easily. Then came the flood of questions — “how do you get tickets?” “Can you get tickets for me?” “I don’t know Chinese, I don’t know how to buy them.”
I answered all these questions truthfully, but people were skeptical about how easy it actually was to get tickets (trust me, it’s easy). Soon enough, though, the residents of the New Dragon Hostel were asking me to go out and do the dirty work for them.
“How much for Rhythmic Gymnastics tickets tomorrow? Can you get me some?”, they would ask me. I’d tell them that I didn’t know, but I could go check for them. “Well, if you see them, buy them for me! I’ll pay you back.”
I took a few “orders,” and came back a few hours later with the tickets…which I bought at inflated (but haggled) prices, and then sold them for even more inflated prices. I was even (mostly) honest about how much I paid, and told them I was charging them for doing the legwork. My clients were happy to oblige. I sold five tickets total (three to some Irish guys, and two to a Norwegian), and made a total of 1000RMB — about $150.
Not bad for a day’s work!