BEIJING, August 12 – Foreign and Chinese touts are openly selling tickets for over 10 times their face value outside Olympic venues despite the threat of jail, amid complaints about empty seats at many stadiums.
The Games organisers have acknowledged that rows of empty seats at sold-out venues are a problem they are trying to address, while suggesting that sponsors and corporate give-aways could be responsible.
Just a few hundreds yards from the iconic "Bird’s Nest" Olympic stadium in northern Beijing an AFP reporter saw touts selling tickets to a range of events.
The trade was taking place under the noses of passing police cars, security guards and Olympic volunteers even though scalping is illegal in China and the authorities have vowed to get tough on touts.
The Beijing Public Security Bureau said in March they had launched a clampdown on touting and have announced arrests from time to time, but sellers who spoke to AFP were relaxed.
"This is a complete free market," one American tout told AFP.
"We thought it was going to be really difficult and people were very nervous for the first few days but once we realised the police were not going to touch us, everyone flooded in.
"Now even the locals are comfortable here," he said.
AFP spoke to touts from Canada, Morocco, the United States and a large number from Britain who had travelled to Beijing to scalp, many with large signs around their neck offering to buy tickets in English and Chinese. None would give their names.
"It is a sellers’ market," one British tout said. "Touch wood, we have not had any trouble from the police."
Two weeks before the Games opened the organisers announced that every single Olympic event being held in the Chinese capital had been sold out.
When a final tranche of tickets went on sale last month police struggled to control surging crowds of more than 50,000 people, indicating the huge enthusiasm for the Olympics and the fuel for a thriving black market.
Two tickets for swimming listed as 200 yuan (15 dollars) each were offered for 5,000 yuan, while the American tout said he had sold three tickets for the opening ceremony for 20,000 dollars each.
One Beijing resident, who has sold on spare tickets and leftovers from friends, said demand was huge.
"I sold an opening ceremony ticket I won in the lottery for 800 yuan for 7,000," he said, on condition of anonymity.
"But I saw some tickets to USA v China men’s basketball going for 10,000."
And some people appear happy to pay.
Anton Harder, a Beijing resident and former ship broker, paid 2,000 yuan to a tout for tickets to the 110m final, one of the hottest seats in Beijing as fans hope to see China’s Liu Xiang pick up the athletics gold.
"You have the chance to see the hero of China trying to cope with a lifetime of pressure on him," Harder said. "I would have spent double what I did to see it."
Wang Wei, the vice-president of the Beijing organising committee, said the organisers were aware of complaints from sports fans over the ticketing situation and the empty seats.
"The empty seats are a challenge for us and we are trying to manage that," he told reporters.
He said that many tickets provided for sponsors could have been given away to friends and customers, who may not be interested in the preliminary rounds or may just come for one match in the session.
"It is a complicated issue and we are trying to remedy that," Wang said, encouraging people to go along if they have tickets.