Why Are There So Many Empty Seats In Beijing?

Empty Stadium i i

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai plays to an empty gallery. Some of the best seats on center court are no-shows. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Empty Stadium

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai plays to an empty gallery. Some of the best seats on center court are no-shows.

Louisa Lim/NPR

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Chu ChengCheng i i

Eighteen-year old Chu Chengcheng is desperate to get a tennis ticket to see her idol Roger Federer. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Chu ChengCheng

Eighteen-year old Chu Chengcheng is desperate to get a tennis ticket to see her idol Roger Federer.

Louisa Lim/NPR

The last thing you might have expected at Beijing's Olympics are swaths of empty seats in a country with a population amounting to a fifth of humanity. But that's what's been happening — even at the most high-profile events.

I'm watching a Chinese tennis player being thrashed, but the crowd is still on her side. The stadium is almost half empty. I'm feeling guilty. Full disclosure: I didn't buy my ticket. That pass and other highly sought-after tickets for basketball and gymnastics were given to me for free by a well-connected businessman. I keep thinking of people like 18-year-old Chu Chengcheng, who'd been standing outside to see tennis for two hours. She's close to tears because she can't get a ticket.

"I feel very disappointed and frustrated," she says. "Because I like Roger Federer. I love him so much."

When the last batch of tickets went on sale, some 30,000 people queued to buy them, some for days. My neighbors at the basketball match had waited 20 hours for theirs. Olympic officials said all 6.8 million tickets had been sold out. Nonetheless, even the most sought-after events are looking surprisingly empty, as Rebecca Ong-Sutherland from Boston told me. She went to the women's gymnastics team finals.

"In the upper decks, there were whole sections that no one was sitting there," she said. "And then lower down, there were VIP seating that was obviously being reserved for someone or something, and those people didn't bother to come."

Ong-Sutherland and her husband, Josh, had their own ticketing problems. They bought their tickets online for way over face value. But they'd already been fleeced once by a fake online ticket company.

"Right before we came here to Beijing, end of July, they just disappear off the face of the earth. I finally realized it was a scam," Josh Sutherland said.

In the Olympic park, crowds are sparse.

The International Olympic Committee has even asked the Beijing organizing committee to allow more people in. Some blame the empty stands on sponsors and government departments who have been allocated blocks of seats but apparently haven't shown up. For some events, the audience is now being supplemented by trained cheering squads.

Speaking on Monday, Wang Wei from the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee gave the official line.

"I think due to the weather conditions as well, the hot humid weather and also the rain — as in the previous Olympic Games, the first couple of days there were not many spectators to show up," Wang said.

An impromptu black market for tickets has sprung up outside a subway station. Even some of the most coveted seats, like the track and field finals, are on sale for many times above face value. But those desperate to buy tickets just can't believe it when they hear about the empty seats.

"This is an opportunity that only comes around once every hundred years," says 19-year-old Yu Tingting. "Everybody wants to go to be there. I don't think there can be empty seats."

But the truth is there are — and in all matches. Supply certainly isn't meeting demand.

Earlier, I visited a hotel hosting supporters of the Dutch volleyball federation. They're awash in tickets, giving them away even. The Olympics might be a global event, but ticketing is following a very Chinese pattern. Any ticket is there for the taking — but only if you have connections or money.

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