There was nothing more mesmerizing to me as a child than the 1968 Summer Olympic. Back in the day when weekend television was not saturated with every sports event imaginable, the images of those games were magical. I will never forget ABC’s Jim McKay describing Bill Toomey running in the “cold and dark and breathless air” of Mexico City, winning the decathlon.
The Olympics have retained their allure for me despite their increasingly corporate nature. I had the opportunity to go to the 1996 Atlanta Games, where I was able to order reasonably priced tickets to track and field (my favorite event) on the day they were placed on sale. When I decided to go to London for this year’s Summer Olympics, I was confronted with a different reality.
I had reserved a hotel room in London’s Bloomsbury section one year prior to the games for an incredibly inexpensive rate equivalent to $100 per night. So I then went to the site of the officially sanctioned US Olympic ticket vendor, Co-Sport (may its name live in infamy). Co-Sport wanted $800 for a single night session of track and field, which came with the nebulous privilege of being a “VIP.” My hoped for seven nights of athletics would cost a mere $5,600.
So I made the only decision that my vast ticket-scalping experience here dictated: I decided to go the Olympics without a ticket to a single event. A risk, to be certain, but surely the country that gave us many free market economic principles would have a thriving secondary market in event tickets.
The dangers of assuming are known to everyone, but the dangers become more profound when you plan an overseas trip around an assumption.
The art of getting in
On the first night I walked right up to the Olympic Stadium, whereupon I was ushered out by a security agent from New Zealand. (They have to recruit for security agents?). He told me I was welcome to try to find tickets, but not anywhere near the Olympic venues. I think he suggested that I look somewhere outside Stonehenge.
It turns out ticket scalping is illegal in England, and that doesn’t only mean selling tickets at a profit. It means any resale of tickets whatever, even at a discount. “Touts” –those who resell tickets – appear to be regarded in Great Britain on the same level as ax murderers.
The advice I was often given by security personnel – “Go to London.2012.com” – was not very helpful, as the official British ticketing site sold only to Europeans. And based on what I heard from the natives, tickets were only available on that site for fleeting seconds, which made the empty seats visible on television all the more galling
So what to do for my planned one week stay in London? The prospects were depressing, but I got a tip from my innkeeper to try a tube station called West Ham, where they were encouraging spectators to disembark and make a 20 minute walk to Olympic Park – as opposed to getting off at the allegedly overcrowded Stratford station. I had hung out at Stratford with a multitude of other ticket seekers after getting tossed from the stadium area on my first night, and I figured a return to that spot was hopeless.
West Ham turned out to be a “brilliant” move, as the British like to say about anything good (it is an adjective used to describe everything but their food). For consecutive nights I purchased tickets from a Japanese man at face value (“You very lucky”), a Swede and a couple of Israelis.
While I did not see Usain Bolt in a final (I did see him in the 200 Meter semi-final) or Great Britain’s magnificent distance runner Mo Farah, I did see many track finals and was feeling pretty great about the gamble I had taken. This feeling of near-euphoria was reinforced by reading about the frustrations of locals who were being shut out of tickets entirely.
After seeing my first night of track, I was game to try to get into the individual apparatus gymnastics competition the next afternoon. As on my first unsuccessful night, there were no ticket sellers and a glut of international would-be ticket buyers.
I was erroneously directed to the box office by one of the ubiquitous volunteers, where of course there were no tickets (I knew this would be the case). Much to my surprise I was allowed to pass through the security perimeter without a ticket, and shortly thereafter purchased a ticket with a face value of L295 (about $440.00) for a “mere” L100.
I directed my Brazilian co-conspirator to concealed area to conduct the illicit transaction.
While I missed the men’s parallel bars, I did see a scintillating performance by Epke Sonderland of the Netherlands on the high bar, for which he was awarded a gold medal. The steely Aly Raisman won a gold medal in floor exercises and a bronze on the balance beam.
My Olympic-watching experience peaked with the gold medal game in women’s soccer. The thrilling U.S. win over Japan was witnessed by 80,000 spectators in historic Wembley Stadium, and I felt privileged to be there (despite the fact that a costumed Japanese fan was yelling “Nepo” in my ear all night). I was so caught up with U.S. pride that I posed for a picture with American flag after the match only to be advised by the small girl from whom I borrowed the flag that I was holding it backwards.
So in my first five days in London I’d managed to see five events, and desirable ones at that. Nothing against team handball, but I wasn’t interested in seeing events where I didn’t know the rules or couldn’t name a single participant.
Another day, another try
My luck dropped more precipitously than one of Henry VIII’s wives on my last attempt to get a ticket on the following day.
A policewoman advised me that my seemingly covert ticket purchasing spot near the West Ham tube stop was actually next to a police station. While the police officers accompanying her were of good humor, the female officer felt it necessary to search my bag for stolen goods (My hastily scrawled sign advertising my desire for a ticket was confiscated, but I was not formally booked).
I moved further up the greenway toward the Olympic Stadium, but my late arrival and brief period of detention proved ruinous to my last attempt to see track and field. I had been fortunate to see what I had seen, but it was time to retire and accept my silver medal in ticket prospecting.
If I go to Rio in 2016 –unlikely – I will have tickets in hand. And next time I go to Bank of America Stadium without a ticket, I’ll be happy for our relatively free enterprise system, even if Panthers vs. Buccaneers does not quite have the aura of the Olympics.