Olympic Ticket Tumult In Beijing

Beijing police strain to keep fans of the Games behind a fence while they wait to buy tickets for next month's events.
Beijing police strain to keep fans of the Games behind a fence while they wait to buy tickets for next month's events. (By Robert F. Bukaty -- Associated Press)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 26, 2008

BEIJING, July 25 -- The scene outside Beijing's main Olympic ticket office descended into chaos on Friday as nearly 40,000 people hoping to see the Games overwhelmed officials, forcing police to block access to the site. The interruption triggered fights in the crowd, clashes between police and reporters, and unhappiness among families who lost their hard-won places in line.

The tickets were part of the final batch to be sold for the Games, but the chaos marked only the latest troubled attempt at ticket distribution. In November, after high demand crashed an online sales system, officials reverted to an old-fashioned lottery and fired the head of ticket sales. In May, an online sales system was set up again, but customers said it was sluggish or didn't work at all.

Chinese complained Friday that, with the Aug. 8 opening ceremony two weeks away, the government was still unprepared for one of the most important events in this country in years.

"They can't even solve such a small problem as this -- what else can the government manage?" fumed a man who gave his name as Zhu as the crowd surged around him and police struggled to organize people into the semblance of a line. "They make such a simple thing so complicated. If they set up more places to buy tickets, it won't be so crowded and people will buy their tickets earlier."

The heavy police presence at the ticket office was a sign of what's to come during the Games -- being nicknamed by some here as the Security Olympics. Police prevented people who had left their places in line to buy water or eat breakfast from returning. Officers also turned away reporters who wanted to conduct interviews with those waiting to buy their tickets.

According to Hong Kong Cable TV, one of its reporters was pushed to the ground by police and assaulted after refusing to leave. Hong Kong's Oriental News said Beijing police demanded that two Hong Kong journalists delete video footage of police standing by while a fight broke out between ticket buyers nearby.

Li Xiaojian, a government employee who uses a wheelchair, arrived at the central ticket office, located at the Olympic Sports Center complex, at 5 a.m. He said he had heard there was a special ticket window for the disabled. But he was disappointed.

"They don't have the window at all. But they said they do, on their Web site," Li said. A scalper offered him a $9 ticket for $214. "I can't afford that," Li said.

About 30,000 tickets were initially available at the central ticket office Friday, according to the official New China News Agency. Officials decided at the last minute to add an unknown number of track-and-field tickets that were to be sold Saturday and Sunday.

Across Beijing, 250,000 tickets for Beijing events were being sold at various venues. Distribution went smoothly at many of them. But the most popular tickets, for events at the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center, were available only at the central ticket office.

By 8:30 a.m., half an hour before ticket sales were to begin, people were already getting impatient. One man shouted to a policeman: "Why are you so rude? I will beat you to death. I mean you."

The cop replied, "Come here and beat me."

Song Maojiang, a 60-year-old farmer now living with relatives in Beijing, hoped to see an event at the Aquatics Center, known here as the Water Cube. "I didn't realize that so many people would be here," he said quietly. A policeman urged him to go home, for his own safety.

Those who managed to purchase tickets said it was worth the overnight wait.

A 20-year-old student who gave his name as Song snagged two tickets to see Liu Xiang, China's famous hurdler, in the Aug. 21 men's 110-meter hurdles finals at the National Stadium. "I came here Thursday morning just to see where the ticket office was, but there were hundreds of people so I decided to stay and wait," Song said.

"I'm exhausted. I only drank cold water and had instant noodles yesterday," he said. "Some people had tents, but I had nothing. I sat on the ground the whole night, but it's worth it. China only has one chance to host the Olympics over so many years. Maybe in my life, this is my only chance to watch the Games."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company