(Corrects number of people who applied for tickets.)
Two million people applied for tickets to see the men’s 100-meter final on Sunday night in London. (To this reporter’s ears the stadium announcement sounded like two billion; further inspection proved that was a bit high.) There were 80,000 seats. With that kind of surplus demand, you might expect to find a healthy black market, even with the risk of a £20,000 ($31,250) fine. So the afternoon before the race, I set about trying to find scalpers, or “touts,” as they call them in Britain, around the entrance to Olympic Park.
Outside the Starbucks (SBUX) in the Westfield Stratford City shopping center, where the crowds streaming in from the Stratford train station are split in two—ticket holders to the right, all others left—were two young men holding signs that read “need tickets.” I stood and watched for a few minutes. No one approached. It seemed too brazen, too near the entrance.
I wormed my way through the three-level mall. At every turn were police—some in traditional custodian helmets, others carrying machine guns—or private security, or Olympic volunteers, or British Army. London police have arrested 58 suspected scalpers around Olympic venues in the last two weeks. It was clearly impossible to fan extra tickets in hand or ask every passerby if he or she needed tickets without drawing notice.
On the second floor I spotted two men arguing over a pair of what looked like tickets. When they split up, the one who held the tickets brought them over to a pair of volunteers to ask a question, and then made a couple of halting loops around the mall before disappearing into the crowd. I crossed over the pedestrian bridge toward the street around Stratford. I walked up and down the bus station outside, through the shopping center across the street, and a few blocks beyond. I was stopped a couple of times by men who asked me if I was interested in Islam, but didn’t see any sign of tickets on offer.
Back in the mall, two Bobbies approached another man holding a “need tickets” sign. The 51-year-old Frenchman, Robin Pascal, said he’d been looking for a track-and-field ticket for an hour with no success. The police told him it was illegal to buy, he said, and told him to put the sign away.
At that point, with a press credential in my bag as good as a ticket, I gave up my hunt and headed into the park. When you have the chance to see Usain Bolt running his fastest, you take it. I wasn’t the only one holding a magic pass, of course. For three hours before the race, the press seats, tables, and standing areas filled to beyond capacity. A couple of game volunteers held back gate crashers almost until the end, when a few managed to crouch in the stairwell for the all-important sub-10 seconds.
The race, by the way, is as majestic as they say. The sound the crowd made after the gun was like nothing I’d ever heard, as if all 80,000 had inhaled at once. And maybe they had.