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Why Are There So Many Empty Seats In Beijing?

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Why Are There So Many Empty Seats In Beijing?

Why Are There So Many Empty Seats In Beijing?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In the midst of Olympic fever, China has said that the games are sold out. So our reporters in Beijing have been surprised to see rows and rows of empty seats, even at some of the most high-profile events. NPR's Louisa Lim filled one of those seats in order to send this report.

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)

LOUISA LIM: I'm watching a Chinese tennis player being thrashed, but the crowd is still on her side. The stadium is almost half empty. But I'm feeling guilty. Full disclosure: I didn't buy my ticket. It 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 for two hours. She's close to tears because she can't get a ticket.

Ms. CHU CHENGCHENG: I feel very disappointed and frustrated.

LIM: Why do you want to see the tennis so much?

Ms. CHENGCHENG: Because I like Roger Federer. I love him so much.

LIM: 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 for 20 hours for theirs. Olympic officials said all 6.8 million tickets have sold out. Nonetheless, even the most sought-after events are looking surprisingly empty, as Rebecca Ong-Sutherland from Boston told me.

Ms. REBECCA ONG-SUTHERLAND: Today, we attended the women's team finals for gymnastics, and in the upper decks, there were whole sections that nobody was sitting there. And then definitely lower down, there were VIP seating that was obviously being reserved for someone or something, and those people just didn't bother to come.

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

Mr. JOSH SUTHERLAND: Right before we came here to Beijing, end of July, they kind of just disappeared off the face of the earth. I kind of eventually realized it was a scam.

LIM: In the Olympic park, crowds are sparse. The IOC has even asked the Beijing organizing committee to allow more people in. Some blame the empty stands on sponsors and government departments who've been allocated blocks of seats and apparently not 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.

Mr. WANG WEI (Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee): 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.

Unidentified Man #2: I've got quarterfinal volleyball.

LIM: Already, 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, like 19-year-old Yu Tingting.

Ms. YU TINGTING: (Through Translator) This is an opportunity that only comes around once every hundred years. Everybody wants to go to be there. I don't think there can be empty seats.

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

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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