Rio Olympics 2016: Where is everyone?

Story highlights

  • Rio 2016 told CNN over 85% tickets sold
  • Is price of tickets contributing to absence of spectators
  • Fan paid $160 via scalpers rather than $287 face value

Rio de Janiero (CNN)Welcome to the Olympic ticket bazaar.

On any given day at the Olympic Park in Rio de Janiero, a crowd of people with stacks of spare tickets interact with those looking for bargains to form a makeshift Olympic ticketing exchange in front of the official sales office.
    Surely it wasn't supposed to be like this?
    When tickets for Rio 2016 were first released to customers in the US last October, Jana Owen was ready to pounce with credit card in hand.
    Four years ago, Owen visited London to watch the Olympic Games, but found the process of obtaining tickets virtually impossible.
    After applying for seats through a lottery system, she felt lucky to attend three events, and scored big by watching the US men's basketball team play Nigeria in the first round.
    So this time around, with no lottery system to commandeer, the 38-year-old sales executive from Austin, Texas scooped up Olympic tickets for seven events totaling $1,037.
    Even though the release excluded most of the marquee events, like the men's basketball gold medal game and the athletics event featuring the men's 100 meters race -- expected to pit Usain Bolt against Justin Gatlin -- Owen felt gleeful and booked her flights on the spot.
    Team USA basketball tickets are some of the hottest in town.
    "I was impressed with how many tickets I got for Rio as opposed to London, and that dictated what I bought simply because I grabbed whatever I could buy," Owen told CNN.
    "I thought they would be as sparse as London, so I started buying things that I didn't even really want, like judo, and equestrian jumping because I didn't think that anything else was going to become available."

    'Badly planned'

    The final price from official reseller CoSport converted the face values of the tickets at a rate of $1 to 2.35 Brazilian Real -- a rate in place over 12 months prior to the purchase that was nearly 40% more costly -- before adding a 20% handling charge.
    CoSport, which is also the official reseller for markets in the UK, Australia, Canada, Russia, Bulgaria, Norway and Sweden, says it paid the organizers of Rio 2016 a lump sum for blocks of tickets back in 2014 and passed on that rate to customers, according to Reuters.
    Eventually, availability for the most in-demand events -- like the women's gymnastics finals featuring Simone Biles -- became much greater in the run-up to the games on CoSport's website, but Owen had already purchased tickets for events she was less interested in, like judo, that conflicted with their times.
    "The availability was just so scattered and badly planned," she said, adding that there was no official platform for ticket exchange, the way there are for NBA or MLB games in the US.
    To make matters worse, once Owen arrived in Rio de Janeiro, she realized that tickets to most events could be had on the spot without the onerous exchange rate or service charges, either from one of the many official ticket booths or from people in the same boat as her looking to offload spares.
    "As far as the value goes, it was ridiculous, I definitely paid way, way more than anybody who got them from some other countries or who just waited to get them down here," she says.
    "Nothing that I went to was full. I do feel that I could have gotten them cheaper if I waited."
    On Tuesday, one American in his forties held his young daughter's hand while trying to offload seats to badminton, ping pong, and archery in exchange for a pair of tickets to see the swimming finals featuring Michael Phelps. (He did not appear to be having much luck.)

    Scalpers

    Owen, in fact, did manage to get her hands on a ticket to see Phelps make history by winning his 20th and 21st gold medals on Tuesday, and paid just $160 through one of the scalpers, far less than the $287 face value.
    Buying and selling tickets through scalpers can be risky, however, as 40 people were arrested in the Olympic Park for reselling tickets shortly after the opening, according to the AAP, and there have been instances of fake tickets being sold.
    An Irishman was also arrested for selling more than 1,000 VIP tickets to the Opening Ceremony and other events at inflated prices, according to Rio police.
    Although the Aquatics Centre was mostly full, with many other Americans in attendance to cheer on the likes of Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Ryan Lochte, Owen says there were a number of empty seats in her section including most of her row.
    A spokesman from Rio 2016 told CNN that over 85% tickets have been sold so far to roughly five million spectators, and a further 280,000 tickets have been distributed to schoolchildren and recipients of social projects.
    Most of the tickets that have gone unsold are for preliminary round events, he said, adding that empty sections in events like beach volleyball were a result of multiple matches in one session that allowed fans to leave early or arrive late.
    Plenty of empty seats as Germany take on Venezuela at the Beach Volley Arena.
    Another explanation is that many visitors over the past week have been fatigued by lengthy travel journeys to events.
    Getting to the Olympic Park takes about two hours from touristy Copacabana Beach, and returning after a late event can mean missing the subway service getting back.
    That's what spurred Owen to sell her own tickets to a late Argentina vs. Lithuania basketball game on Wednesday, even though she recouped just $64 of her $350 outlay for the pair.
    On the same night, a Canadian couple, who had waited in line for over three hours to pick up their tickets from the CoSport office two days before the start of the Games, tried to sell their 10.30pm China vs. Senegal basketball tickets to no avail.
    "It does make me want to wait and purchase tickets at the host country next time, even though it is a little risky," Owen says of her experience.
    Usain Bolt turned salesman this week urging fans to buy tickets.

    Networking

    Access to even the most traditionally scarce events is available through online resellers.
    A ticket to watch the men's gold medal basketball game on August 21 can be bought for $648.75 including fees on StubHub, while hoping to get a chance to see Bolt make history once again in the 100m final on Sunday would set a person back $324.72 including booking fees on Viagogo, at the time of writing.
    Regardless of all the ticketing pitfalls, however, the joy of watching world class competition outweighs the hassles, Owen says. So much so, in fact, that she's already planning her next trip.
    "Knowing that other countries can purchase tickets so much less makes me want to start networking with someone in South Korea," she says, "so that I can have them purchase tickets to the Winter Olympics for me in two years."