ATHENS, Greece—Last Wednesday's women's beach volleyball match between Greece and China was one of the first Olympic events without many empty seats. I hadn't thought I would need to buy tickets in advance, but the spectacle surrounding each match—chanting, DJs, gyrating halftime dancers almost as scantily clad as the players themselves—had apparently made beach volleyball one of the most popular sports in Athens. Lucky for me, I had no trouble scoring a ticket at the last minute.
It's hard to imagine that an event so troubled by low attendance has spawned an unsanctioned ticket trade. But here, loitering around the Starbucks off Panepistimou Street, are a group of men from all over the world with tickets in hand. I was in the neighborhood hoping to make a purchase at the official Athens Olympic ticket booth there. On my way, I passed a branch of Alpha Bank, an official games sponsor that also sells tickets, but the line seemed too long. Now here I was in the square, surrounded by last-minute shoppers and baking in the hot sun as another long line inched forward.
"It'll be two hours before you get to the head of the queue, mate," a portly British man in sunglasses told the ponytailed Greek man in front of me. "And I've got tickets for sale right here."
"What you're doing is illegal!" the ponytailed patriot shouted.
"It's not illegal to sell tickets at face value or less," the entrepreneurial Brit insisted.
"It is illegal in this country!" ponytail yelled. "You don't know—you're not Greek!"
"And you're not a lawyer," the Cockney man said, turning on his heels. Not as conscientious as the hirsute man in front of me, I took this as my cue to step out of line. "Got any beach volleyball tickets?" I asked.
Five minutes later, I had two 20-euro tickets in my hands. After we sealed the deal, I asked my benefactor how he was making money by selling tickets at the same price that was printed on the front. These were freebies that had been given to the National Olympic Committee of Kyrgyzstan, he explained. "I'm just their agent."
The whole thing seemed a little shady to me. And even if the transaction was legal, I wasn't sure I could pass as Kyrgyzstani. Since I had never heard of Kyrgyzstan before buying its castoff tickets—the Olympics really are educational!—I didn't really know what a Kyrgyzstani looks like. I decided to try my luck anyway. The ticket-takers waved me through, not giving the words "NOC Kyrgyzstan" on my ticket a second glance.
My scalping experience had been terrific—I had managed to purchase affordable tickets without having to suffer through the long wait required at the official booths. And the beach volleyball game was so exciting, I immediately wanted to trade in all my tickets for real, non-beach sporting events and just camp out at the outdoor volleyball venue. But not if I was doing something illegal—I didn't want to risk spending my first Olympics in the clink.
"It's discouraged, but it's not illegal to sell Olympic tickets for face value or less," Athens Olympic Committee spokesperson Mihalis Zacharatos told me. He went on to say that, while the AOC has asked scalpees to inform them if scalpers are selling tickets for higher than face value, each national Olympic committee was technically free to do whatever they wanted with their ticket outlays. "Of course, if anyone makes an official report about a national Olympic committee or federation selling their tickets, we'll notify the International Olympic Committee," Zacharatos concluded.
I certainly wasn't going to be the one to turn in Kyrgyzstan—I couldn't bear to think of my new favorite country getting a diplomatic reprimand over a pair of beach volleyball tickets. By this weekend, my choice of ticket salesmen had expanded. Increased sales in the games' second week have left most events I want to see—the beach volleyball finals, for example—sold out and left the square in front of Starbucks teeming with unofficial brokers. In the past few days, I've noticed everyone from the father of one of the two athletes competing for Equatorial Guinea to a group of German travel agents hocking tickets. From what I saw, they're all following the letter of the law, selling tickets for face value or less. Call me sentimental, but I'm holding out until I see the agents from Kyrgyzstan again. It wouldn't be Olympic beach volleyball without them.