London Games ticket touts play dirty

Of all the negative stories – from transport meltdowns to security scares likely to afflict the London Olympics before Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, this week’s was the most predictable and yet it is also potentially among the most damaging.

Claims that 27 representatives of 54 countries, more than one-quarter of the total number whose athletes will march around the track in Stratford in the name of Olympic values, were prepared to break International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules and sell thousands of tickets on the black market will not come as a big surprise to many. Certainly, not to anyone who has observed the margins of major sporting events since the 1984 Los Angeles Games set the template for the modern era.

But the numbers involved still shock – up to £6000 demanded for “AA” blue riband tickets sloshing around in a global market for an event staged in venues built with billions of pounds of public money.

Last week, in a lakeside corner of Lausanne, IOC president Jacques Rogge could afford a degree of quiet satisfaction as he reflected on the upcoming Games. There was no last-minute panic to finish the venues, no international outcry over human rights. Rogge, who will stand down next year after 12 years in the IOC’s top job, had hoped to leave behind an organisation in rude financial health and with a restored reputation for probity and transparency.

As fires raged at Fifa last year, the IOC was able to bask in the fact that, in comparison, it looked like a model international governing body. The calm hand on the tiller, that of the Belgian former Olympic sailor, elected in 2001 in the wake of the Salt Lake City bribery scandal that threatened to destroy its image, had made it appear a beacon of good practice next to Sepp Blatter’s collapsing Fifa house.

The speed with which the IOC reacted to the London Sunday Times allegations reflects the extent to which they threaten to sully this good name. The claims may involve only “thousands” of tickets among 8.8-million but, as ever, perception is everything.

At a general assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees in Acapulco in October 2010, the London organising committee chairperson, Lord Coe, acknowledged the threat and said tough action would be taken against anyone who broke the rules regarding distribution of the 1.1-million tickets reserved for overseas buyers. He gently reminded them of the inquiring nature of the British media.

Yet widespread suspicions remained, exacerbated by the recent resignation of the general secretary of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee when he was caught by a similar BBC sting. In its hastily released statement, the IOC declared that the national Olympic committees involved were “autonomous”.

The same goes for the international federations of Olympic sports that, from time to time, are similarly involved in scandal.

London organisers can justifiably point to having done more to combat touting than any previous Games, including specific warnings to overseas Olympic committees. They also said that none of the tickets involved was among the 6.6-million allocated to the British public.

But these distinctions mean little to the many who have struggled to secure tickets for the biggest events and already feel ill-disposed towards what they see as preferential treatment for sponsors and blazers. They will see this as yet more evidence for the prosecution.

The timing is less than ideal for the London organisers, just as they were hoping to capitalise on the groundswell of goodwill created across the country by the torch relay. They hoped that the growing buzz would translate into an acceleration in sales for almost two million remaining tickets for football and high-priced options for less popular sports and drown out complaints over sponsors and selection controversies.

Lessons must be learned and the way the IOC allocates and distributes tickets must surely change. One of the strengths of the IOC’s structure is that the executive is not beholden to national associations in the same way as Fifa’s is. A centralised ticketing system that bequeaths less power to national fiefdoms may be one option. Market forces mean it will never be possible to eradicate the black market entirely, but it should be possible to ensure it is not fuelled by those inside the tent. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Owen Gibson
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