The Mystery of Empty Seats at the Olympics

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 8/11/2008 12:27:00 AM
While following some of the Olympic events, I've been struck by how many empty seats there often are. Given that so many folks--especially the Chinese--have waited in line to get a shot at availing of tickets, this situation is rather curious. If the Olympics are such a hot ticket--indeed, the world's premier sporting event--then why are people not filling in the seats despite an officially announced sell-out (note how much the meaning would change by omitting the en dash)? Wouldn't the man in the (hyperpolluted Beijing) street be excited at the prospect of watching the Games live instead of on the boob tube? As with many, many things, there may be a political economy explanation behind these matters. The relationship between sport and mammon has existed for a very long time, if not necessarily approved of. With that in mind, the BBC offers potential explanations:

(1) Fatcat corporate sponsors with a lot of courtesy tickets haven't used their allocations that much for preliminaries--they're waiting to use them for later, medal-bearing events;
(2) Blame officials with tickets, be they from the media, the teams, or the national olympic comittees who are also not taking their places;
(3) The PRC is actively persecuting ticket touts (scalpers to the non-King's English speakers);

While many resent ticket scalpers, I have always thought that they provide an important economic function. Especially for in-demand events, they maintain a semblance of market functioning even moments before or even during an event. Unfortunately, the overzealous Chinese organizing committee doesn't seem to agree. According to the Canadian Press, Olympic ticket scalpers risk being sent off to re-education camps [!] and labour camps [!!] for their heinous activities. Does the punishment fit the crime? Somehow, I think this a bit extreme. To what extent the fear of being sent to the Chinese gulag (laogai) factors into empty seats alongside the other two reasons is something that certainly raises interesting questions:
There may be swarms of security volunteers and police officers posted every 30 metres along Beijing's main roads, but scalpers are still managing to find unguarded pieces of sidewalk to tout the hottest tickets in town. "Oh-limp-ick-uh tickets!" says a man in broken English, leaning by a tree. As the Olympic Games launch in the Chinese capital, scalpers are selling the coveted sporting billets despite threats of being sent to labour camps if caught. "Boxing," the man said in Chinese, raising his fists to highlight the sport. "Track and field," he offered, declining to give his name.

The police have told Chinese media that ticket scalpers can be detained for 10 to 15 days, but also raised the threat of re-education camps, where Chinese can be sentenced to manual labour without trial. Amnesty International as well as other human rights groups have called on China to eliminate the practice.

While microchips have been embedded in all Beijing Olympics tickets, only opening and closing ceremony tickets contain photos and passport data. Authorities have said holders can transfer a ticket only once by going to a Bank of China branch, but tickets purchased outside China do not have such restrictions.

An American graduate student studying in Beijing, who would only give his first name, Aaron, because he was worried about being identified, said he bought 100 tickets in the U.S. lottery a year and a half ago and sold them to foreigners in Beijing for three times the original amount. "I knew I was coming to Beijing a long time ago for the Olympic period. I didn't think I would get many tickets, so I asked for a ton, and I ended up getting every one I asked for," he said.

Ticket sales in China kicked off Oct. 30 on a first-come, first-served basis, but the system was suspended the next day after demand overwhelmed the system. Organizers reverted to a lottery system, under which people could only get eight tickets compared with the 50 given previously.

"The men's basketball match between China and U.S. has sold out. Yesterday it was over $1,460 (US) and it has kept changing by the day," another scalper, who sells his tickets outside the Worker's Stadium in central Beijing, said Saturday. He did not want to give his name for fear of arrest. He offered tickets for Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang's final match at $875. Another man offered tickets for the 110-metre men's hurdling for five times the original price at $292.

The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee also has ordered Web sites not to hawk Olympic tickets. While one website was still offering tickets on Saturday and a search brought up other links, many posts had been taken down.

A notice on the website of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau in May said that since March 18, the police had caught 316 scalpers and detained more than 200 of them, including two who were punished with sentences to labour camps.

Re-education through labour was established by the Communist government in 1955 for routine non-violent offenders, with prostitutes and drug addicts typical targets. The maximum term is three years, but a fourth can be added if the offender misbehaves.

Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong said the population of labour camps has not decreased despite some reform efforts within China. The system totally bypasses criminal law, he said. "I think the issue here is that nobody should be deprived of his or her liberty without the benefit of a trial," he said. "Re-education through labour is completely illegal under international law. This is arbitrary detention." In a report released in July, Amnesty International said the government has used the Olympics as a pretext for extending the use of re-education through labour.

Mr. Zhang, a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau who like many Chinese officials would only give his last name, said they deal with scalpers under the law. "We deal with scalpers according to how serious the case is, including the number of tickets they resell, the profits they make and whether they repeatedly break the law. So it's hard to say whether we re-educate scalpers through labour if they resell tickets," he said.