China's Olympic Ticket Frenzy

Getting into the Games isn't easy in a country of 1.3 billion. In Round Two of ticket sales, the official Web site drew 8 million hits in the first hour

Remember all those empty seats at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens? Officials from the International Olympic Committee surely do, which is one reason they're looking forward to next year's Games in Beijing. In a country with the largest population on the planet—and a government determined to use the sporting event as proof that China is an economic superpower—the folks at the IOC are counting on sellout crowds at major Olympic events in Beijing and other venues throughout China.

That's one reason the Games' organizers must be happy about the ticketing frenzy-turned-fiasco that occurred Oct. 30. The first batch of Olympic tickets was a lottery, and would-be ticket buyers had to sign up between April and June, with lucky winners not finding out till late August. Round Two of the ticket sales was first-come, first-serve. Sales began at 9 a.m. at Bank of China branches and via online and telephone ticketing services. For those of us who weren't able to get as many tickets for the Games as we would have liked or who didn't manage to buy any at all the first time around, today was our second chance.

Let's just say that buying tickets for the Olympics in a country with 1.3 billion people is a little bit harder than getting season tickets for the Green Bay Packers. The ticket booking system crashed under unexpectedly huge demand shortly after sales started.

Bank of China System Also Crashes

I got the first clue when I got a text message from my sister—who also lives in Beijing—while I was in the middle of a meeting. Since I knew I was going to be busy this morning, I had asked her to see if she could get tickets for the men's basketball finals or semifinals. (Hey, I've got faith that Team USA will at least make it to the semifinals.) "Can't get on the Web site to buy tix," she wrote. "And I didn't bring my passport today to go to the bank." Without her passport as ID, she couldn't buy the tickets in person at Bank of China. Andrew Lih, a blogger in Beijing, preserved a picture of the Beijing 2008 error screen for posterity.

So, after my meeting was over, I popped over to the local Bank of China branch to see if I would have better luck getting tickets at the bank than my sister. I came prepared: Ever since the police made me write a self-criticism for not carrying my passport several years ago, I always have it with me when I go out. But the bank manager said Bank of China's system had crashed, too. The bank got a $22.5 billion bailout from the central government in 2003, so you would think they could have used some of that money to buy more servers.

According to the official Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Web site, 9,000 tickets were sold in the first two hours. But the official Web site got 8 million hits in the first hour alone. The ticketing hotline received 2 million phone calls during that period. The way I figure it, I've got a 0.1125% chance to buy tickets online and 0.45% chance through the hotline.

More than 12 hours after the tickets went on sale, the Beijing 2008 Olympics Web site was still not close to getting fixed. I'm thinking I should have hired a migrant worker to log on at an Internet café and to keep clicking on the site until he gets through. One of my colleagues says she'll wake up at 3 a.m. tomorrow to try her luck then.

If that doesn't work, there's still a third round of ticket sales starting in April.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.