Most Chinese on outside looking in at Olympics

Aug. 12, 2008, 12:14 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Auto engineer Liu Chun tried to buy tickets on the Internet for the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and failed. He would have been satisfied with seats to watch volleyball, table tennis, basketball or diving but they were sold out.

Still the 35-year-old Liu counts himself lucky. Along with thousands upon thousands of others, he has brought his family to the high security fence that surrounds the Olympic Green to marvel at the stunning venues. "Beijing's more exciting and beautiful than usual. She's dressed up like a bride," said Liu, softspoken and wearing aviator glasses, as he stood Tuesday night looking from afar at the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium with his 5-year-old daughter, wife and three relatives.

The People's Republic of China nearly forgot the people when it threw an Olympics. All 6.8 million tickets were quickly spoken for, reserved for VIPs and snapped up by ordinary fans. Heavy security - including armored personnel carriers parked at two entrances Tuesday - and a dearth of passes have made the vast green seem eerily deserted.

Rather than feeling left out, many in Beijing are content to cheer the Olympics from the outside looking in. "We're here to enjoy the atmosphere. It's just nice to feel like we're taking part," said Wang Hongyan, the 30-something owner of a women's clothing store in the northeastern city of Changchun. She and two women friends, the store's co-owners and all three with frizzy permed hair, stood in a parking lot, taking photos of each other with the bubble-wrapped Water Cube swimming venue in the distance.

Wang and her partners also struck out getting tickets for the opening ceremony. Instead, the three, who timed a clothes-buying trip to Beijing with the start of the Olympics, spent opening night watching a big-screen TV on a central Beijing street with thousands of others. "It was so festive. There were so many people," said Wang.

Grumblings about access mainly have come not from Chinese, but the International Olympic Committee and leading commercial sponsors of the games. Despite the supposed sellout of tickets, many venues have vacant seats, with attendance at some events as low as 60 percent - annoying the IOC.

Corporate sponsors, like General Electric Co., Adidas and Samsung - who pay the IOC tens of millions of dollars apiece - have complained that the pavilions they erected on the 2,850-acre (1,150-hectare) Olympic Green to advertise their brands are empty of visitors. The IOC has urged Beijing Olympics organizers to allow more people into the green and make sure that venue seats are filled.

Many Chinese have grown accustomed to their government's arbitrary decisions and sometimes heavy-handed security and the high public support for the Olympics means people are willing to tolerate short-term inconveniences for a successful games.

But in its eagerness for a flawless Olympics, the Beijing Olympic organizing committee promised the seats and green would be filled in the coming days. The rainy weather of recent days has passed, and preliminary rounds of competitions that are often poorly attended at Olympics will soon end, said Wang Wei, the committee's spokesman. Venue managers, he said, are fitting out volunteers in yellow shirts to form cheering sections if crowds are sparse.

And for the Olympic green, "there were not enough people. So today we are going to encourage more people into the common domain," Wang said at the daily media briefing. The IOC said thousands more passes for the green would be issued every day.

By Tuesday afternoon, neighborhood committees - government-backed councils that each monitor about 1,000 households - had organized busloads of Chinese to come to the green. The wait to get into the Coca Cola Co.'s pavilion was a half-hour. Outside the GE pavilion, about 40 Chinese grew impatient, shouting to be let in after waiting for 15 minutes while a special tour was conducted for corporate guests.

Security, while still intense, seemed to relax a notch around the edge of the green. Over the weekend when U.S. President George W. Bush and dozens of other dignitaries were in the city, people were told to stay away from the green. On Tuesday people hopped over police tape to stand in a parking lot that afforded clearer views of the Water Cube.

Dozens clambered over the railings of a sealed-off roadway outside the "Bird's Nest" stadium. Only when they got too close to an open gate leading into the compound did the two paramilitary police warn them. "Move back to take photos," an officer said into a bullhorn.

Liu, the auto engineer, and his family retreated from the gate a dozen steps to take more pictures. He said he thought about buying tickets from scalpers but decided against it; he's trying to save money to buy an apartment. "I can still enjoy the games, but at home on TV," said Liu. "Of course it won't be as exciting as seeing it in the venues."

"It's a special time, a hundred-year dream," Zhang Rui, a stocky, 29-year-old dressed in baggy shorts, said using a phrase the government often invokes to describe China's longing for the Olympics. Zhang, however, said he could afford to be tolerant. A minerals trader from the southern city of Liuzhou, he bought "a lot of tickets" - from fencing to basketball - and brought his girlfriend to Beijing for a two-week Olympic vacation.