British go medieval over ticket scalping

Getting Olympic tickets can be a dicey proposition because of a law passed specifically for the Games. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

LONDON -- As you may have heard, there are surface-to-air anti-missile weapons placed on some of the rooftops near Olympic Park. This is not, however, to prevent terrorism. This is to keep people from scalping tickets.

The attitude here toward ticket scalping –- what the Brits call touting -- is extraordinary. And baffling.

"Touting has been a problem at all major events for many years," the Metropolitan Police told USA Today. "The Olympics have been no exception."

My wife and another man were holding up their fingers for tickets near the gymnastics venue last week when a worker responsible for directing pedestrian traffic noticed and was so offended that he immediately alerted police. "There’s someone [scalping]!" he shouted, pointing to my wife. "And there’s another one there!"

The omnipresent police quickly swooped in and told my wife that not only is scalping illegal under a law passed specifically for the Olympics, you can be arrested for offering a ticket to someone for free.

He wasn’t kidding. Police arrested a Canadian who offered to sell two tickets at face value –- about $75 -- to a tennis match. They jailed him for two nights. I’m not kidding. Two nights in jail for trying to re-sell a ticket at face value! Sheesh, in that case, a ticketing website "service charge" should be grounds for a lifetime sentence.

A German scalper was arrested last week, and when they searched his apartment, they found $35,000 worth of tickets, which means he probably had two tickets for swimming, three for the 100-meter dash and one for the men’s gold-medal basketball game. The article I read concerning this was written with such a tone of disgust and outrage, it was as if the apartment search had uncovered child pornography on his hard drive.

I know scalpers are generally regarded somewhere among lawyers, journalists and the people who call you in the middle of dinner to offer you a credit card with an 18.5 percent introductory interest rate. I’ve never understood this. Scalpers provide a valuable service. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to re-sell tickets for whatever the market will bear? Imagine if you couldn’t sell stock or your house at a profit (admittedly, the latter is fairly easy to imagine in some states). Our entire economy would collapse.

But the scalping attitude here is incomprehensible. The way the Olympic committee rigs the ticket system toward federations and sponsors, the surest way (and sometimes the only way) to get a ticket at the Games is to go through scalpers. That’s never been an issue at the previous nine Games I’ve attended. When I didn’t have a credential at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, I still was able to cover the events because tickets were consistently available for half-price or less. My wife often has gotten tickets for well below face value by hitting up the official sponsor groups as they get off the bus at a competition. There is usually an available ticket because someone was a no-show.

But just broaching the subject here risks a night in the clink.

You can’t even buy tickets at a venue. There are no box offices, and the few available tickets must be purchased online ahead of time. When fans go to the site, they might see tickets are available for a competition -- but by the time you click to purchase, the website always says nothing is available. Waiting to buy a ticket this way is like waiting to move up the list for Packers season tickets.

Fortunately, there is one back-door avenue to get tickets. Each national federation receives an allotment of tickets, and some sell their unused ones at their official team houses. This is allowed even though the houses charge a commission as high as 30 percent. Still, it’s about the only way to get tickets. Thank God the Czechs have embraced capitalism since the Iron Curtain fell, because the British apparently are above such things.

Except when it comes to T-shirt and beer prices.