The IOC's London ticket problem

In 2005, when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2012 Summer Games to London, it did so knowing full well the British press would come along for the ride. This, then, is what you have to expect just weeks before the opening ceremony: reports like the one in Britain's Sunday Times, alleging that representatives in more than 50 countries have been involved in selling London 2012 Olympic tickets on the black market for profit.

At issue are tickets given by the London 2012 organizing committee to each of the 204 national Olympic committees to sell at home. Each NOC typically appoints an agent to sell those tickets.

IOC rules do not allow NOCs from selling tickets abroad, from inflating ticket prices or from selling tickets to unauthorized re-sellers. The newspaper said it intends to deliver a dossier to the IOC on 27 officials controlling the tickets for 54 countries.

The IOC's policy-making executive board held a hurried telephone conference call and referred the matter to the IOC ethics commission.

The IOC issued a statement saying it takes the matter "very seriously." By all accounts there is a will to do something about it, and with due speed. It seemed evident a full resolution is unlikely before the July 27 opening ceremony. The London 2012 committee itself is not implicated; this is IOC business.

Immediate denials of wrongdoing were issued from all corners of the world, including the United States. Greg Harney, one of those identified in story, a former U.S. Olympic Committee staffer, identified in the story as a vice-president of ticket broker Cartan Tours, was said in the story to have "encouraged" the paper's undercover reporters to "set up a sham address" in "one of the 40 countries whose tickets he controls to conceal an illicit foreign sale."

Harney told the Olympic newsletter Around the Rings that his firm did not violate any rules and will "fully cooperate" with the IOC investigation.

One does wonder about the Sunday Times story when it can't get a basic fact right:

The piece identifies Harney as "organizer of the failed US bid for the 2012 Games." He was not. Again, he was a USOC staffer. Dan Doctoroff was of course the head of the New York bid.

No one in Olympic circles -- repeat, no one -- can be all that surprised that there might be issues with ticketing, and that people might say they have access to control tickets when they might or might not.

For one, ticketing is an extraordinarily complex, multi-layered affair.

For another, pretty much everyone suspects Olympic tickets were sold on the black market at prior Games.

On top of which, demand for tickets to these Games is keen, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It's easy to understand why. The London 2012 committee has marketed the Games brilliantly. Moreover, Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are due to star. London is accessible and relatively easy to get to from everywhere.

So what, if anything, the IOC really do about it?

Dealing with the NOCs is straightforward. They fall under the auspices of the ethics commission.

Dealing with the agents -- that is more difficult.

The clear solution, of course, would be to remove from the future ticket distribution list the name of any agent found liable of misconduct. But ought such expulsion be temporary or permanent?

And how to measure misconduct? In the European Union, tickets can legally be re-sold anywhere within the union. For the sake of argument, is it fair to say that a ticket to the men's 100-meter final so transferable within so many countries in Europe without sanction ought to be restricted within, say, the remote Pacific island nation of Vanuatu simply because the luck of the draw sent a particular ticket to Vanuatu? Does that really make sense?

Yes, those are the rules -- but when rules run into supply and demand, and you mix in human creativity and ingenuity, you get what you get.


Denis Oswald, the Swiss lawyer and head of the international rowing federation who sits on the IOC executive board, told Inside the Games, a British Olympic newsletter, that simply banning agents might not be enough. He suggested that agents who can be proved to have committed wrongdoing "should no longer belong to the Olympic movement."

It would seem obvious, no matter the outcome of the ethics inquiry, that after years of confusion and whispering about the NOC ticketing process, the IOC ought to use this occasion to take a hard look at how the process works. Here is the most important reform:

Make the entire ticketing process far more transparent.

To generalize, no one understands it.

Because no one understands it, everyone thinks it's a screw job. The people who got tickets think they simply got lucky. The millions who don't think they are getting the shaft, and stories like the Sunday Times' report powerfully reinforce that notion.

The IOC has gone far in recent years in restoring public confidence in other sectors -- anti-doping, for instance. Now it needs to undertake that same effort with regards to ticketing. If it's too late to change for London, that ought to be the message for the next Winter Games, Sochi 2014, and absolutely the next Summer Olympics, Rio de Janeiro, in 2016.