Trying to get tickets for these Olympics is torture.
Take 1.3 billion people who are told that attending this event will be their greatest honor, add plenty of freebies scooped up by corporate high rollers and Chinese VIPs or officials, and that doesn't leave much for us bottom feeders. You know you're in trouble when all the sessions of archery, beach volleyball and rhythmic gymnastics are way beyond sold out.
Aside from this, it's almost impossible to find anyone daring enough to scalp tickets in broad daylight, given the security presence around every venue (26 were arrested, and perhaps beheaded, outside the crush of rioting fans at the final-phase sales last month) and the fact that these games have been purposely planned to have no central ground for wheelin' and dealin'.
That leaves the option of taking a chance on what the Chinese term "yellow" Web sites, where prices for premium events like gymnastics or track are heading toward four figures for tickets that may or may not turn out to be fraudulent duplicates. I've found only one anomalous scrupulous agency, CoSport, selling for immediate pick-up at standard prices (U.S. $7 to $14 for a slew of lesser sports). But after an hour of scanning, the only precious seats I land are for flyweight boxing prelims and those thrilling handball quarterfinals the entire world will be glued to.
However, as the holder of an "unaccredited media visa," I am entitled to certain privileges. Not many, not like the holders of yellow passes -- jaded "shooters" and pampered anchors no doubt -- who get access to the Main Press Center and all venues. But just enough to keep the rest of us scribblers (and most of the Chinese press) not quite in the game but not entirely out. Call it reportorial purgatory.
I get daily access (through metal detection and serious frisking) to the BIMC (Beijing International Media Center), where I am duly rewarded with souvenir backpack, cap, map, "free" phone SIM card (the first $7 of calls at least), cheap meals at a wretched canteen, working computer rooms and endless Dixie cups of Nescafé, in the marble-laden Gehua New World Hotel, plus regular press conferences held entirely in Chinese.
The BIMC also offers a host of exciting daily outings: a reception at the marriage registry to interview couples who want to get hitched on 8/8/08, the usual acrobat shows (featuring "Crystal of White Snow -- Contortionists with Glasses" as well as "Air Jumping and Catching"), tours of the cocoon silk industry and reformed state-owned enterprises.
Just accidentally, with no notice, I bumped into a room marked "ticket sales" and decided to take my chances. But here's the system for much of the world's middling media that seven years' planning devised: A tantalizing trickle of tickets is put up each morning, around 100 in total, but often only one or two each for the most desirable sports.
One posted list is for "new" tickets available for five days hence and includes athletics, swimming and such. According to the rules, each holder of a BIMC credential is allowed to purchase one such ticket. And they don't mean one every day, but one single stupid stub for the entire Olympics. As a result, of course, everyone is waiting to try to get final events on the last days, when there will be a crush of demand, while most of the early day's tickets end up unsold.
To give us all something to aim for in the meantime, there are also a similar number of "leftovers," mostly in more obscure disciplines like judo, shooting and weightlifting. We can scoop up two per day of these -- if we're high enough up in the queue. They've lined 24 numbered seats in the hall, and with sales starting at 10 in the morning, I think I'm in good shape to be there at 8:30.
Then I learn that some have been holding their seats since 3 a.m., 1 a.m. or even the night before. And with all the seats taken, I've got to jostle for position as a sloppy line forms behind them. As one of the beleaguered volunteers puts it, summarizing much of Chinese society, "Take a seat please! But there are no seats."
At 9 a.m., they hand out numbered tickets and we all are told to return at 10. Then the real problems begin. With only one young student among China's millions assigned to man the computer, and every purchaser having to ponder choices among the few options given them when their turn is called, the sales are painfully slow. Ten people an hour, I estimate.
At 4 in the afternoon, they are still going. This is indeed the death by slow drips of that infamous water torture. And how, exactly, do they expect us to cover the Olympic Games when we are waiting all day in this hallway?
When I try to make trouble, as those pesky Americans are wont to do, I'm informed that the people in charge are at press conferences, in meetings, nowhere to be found (or maybe using their VIP tickets). The volunteers, smart young whips all, shrug their shoulders and cope with a system they admit is bad. All countries have their bureaucratic snafus, of course, but there is something quintessentially Chinese about everyone following the strict procedures of an overbearing state presence handed down by invisible work leaders who are not merely unaccountable but untouchable.
Anyway, one day's No. 32 yields me tickets to women's field hockey and women's basketball. A No. 98 on the next is torn up when No. 97 gets the very last seat for the day.
But stay tuned. One of these mornings, I may just try for that one big one. After all, my hardship is nothing compared to that of ordinary Chinese who waited days in tents, in the rain. Maybe I just don't have the fortitude of those communal cadres rising at dawn to fertilize their fields with "honey buckets" of fresh human dung. I'm no model worker like comrade Lei Feng. Especially when I can always have the best seat in the house in the journalists' work room, before a bank of 20 flat-screen TVs simultaneously tuned to cycling, diving, Chinese soap operas and the latest on John Edwards' flame.
I can't really convince my lazy ass that a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single ticket.