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Team USA gear not easy to find in China

Aug. 15, 2008, 12:11 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Like the hats Team USA wore during the opening ceremonies? Or the warm-ups Michael Phelps dons on the medal stand?

Good luck getting one for yourself.

To get USA gear at the Beijing Olympics is no easy feat. One must first bus or cab to the Workers' Stadium, then hoof it to the east gate. Keep your eyes open for the Buffalo Resort, then cross the wooden foot bridge and pass the spa located right before Jasmine restaurant.

Look closely between the hulking blue "Amazing Awaits" pillars, and you'll find the bright red door to USA House.

But you better know somebody if you think you're getting in.

There's only one place to buy USA merchandise in China, and it's tucked away in the invite-only souvenir shop. Resembling a hip New York City nightclub with its sleek floors and twisting staircase, the modernistic showplace is stuffed with T-shirts, caps, pins and everything else stamped Team USA.

"We had good directions, and I know the area, so we found it OK. But you definitely couldn't ask a Chinese how to get here," said Steve Carroll, a transplanted Chicagoan now working for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

He and his wife heard about the shop from their son, who had visited it days before and came home loaded with Team USA gear.

"He come home with a ton of stuff, so he told us how to get here so we could find our own things," wife Corinna said as she fingered a blue Nike T-shirt.

An agreement between the USOC and the Beijing Olympic organizing committee limited the sales of Team USA gear in China to one offsite store. There are plenty of items available at www.teamusa.org, but to get something fresh to wear to an event requires a visit to USA House, where entry can be as difficult to achieve as an invite to a Paris Hilton-hosted party.

The 1,000-square foot store is accessible only to USOC partners and their invited guests, said Bill Korbus, who leads USOC merchandise and retail.

"At every games there is a bilateral agreement with the host, and the deal we were able to strike with BOCOG was just our marks at just this venue and just to our invited guests," Korbus said. "It's opened to licensees, donors - the reason this place exists is for the people we serve."

It means no long lines or Black Friday-like frenzies that play out daily at the Beijing Superstore. There shoppers jam the aisles as they scour through roughly 5,000 different official Olympic souvenirs. The atmosphere is so chaotic, only one entrance was open Friday and security limited how many people could shop at one time.

But if you want Team USA stuff, there's no sense even going to the Superstore.

"We can't sell their marks, and they can't sell ours," Korbus said. "It's kind of a territory thing. If you go to the Superstore, you won't see any Italy, or Germany or France. None of that.

"So this store is almost like a free-trade zone. It's common. We're not allowed to sell in any of our other venues, it would be disrespectful to our host. But we're comfortable with the deal we struck."

Korbus estimates 11,000 invited guests will visit USA House during the games. On Friday, the dozen or so shoppers ranged from state department employees, a friend of beach volleyballer Elaine Young and the parents of swimmer Margaret Hoelzer.

Hoelzer's mother, Elizabeth Livingston, was killing time between her daughter's events to shop for the USA medallions she collects. She purchased one in Athens in 2004 and turned it into a necklace, and was contemplating doing the same with one from these games.

"Be honest, do you think it's too big to wear around my neck?" she asked as she held it up to her Athens necklace.

The store was hatched after the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, when the USOC had just three retail stores with long lines that its partners quickly tired of waiting in. It led to a 200-square foot concession stand in Athens where merchandise was snapped up at a rapid rate.

"We thought 'We may have something here,' " Korbus recalled. "So for Torino, we doubled our space to 400-square feet. Then we doubled our sales from Athens and actually sold out early, and I vowed it would never happen again.

"We want people who come in wave one to have the same experience as people in wave four. Whatever you want after you journey all the way over here, we want to have it on hand for you, which is why we've gone to pretty great expense to air freight items over that we were running low on."

Currently, Korbus is having a hard time keeping the store stocked with the Nike medal-stand cap, which is a blue hat with the five USA rings in red, white and blue. The Ralph Lauren polos are also in high-demand. On Friday, the shelves were picked through, and only smalls and XXL's seemed to remain.

No reason, to fret though. Most merchandise is available on the web sites for Nike and Ralph Lauren, plus five stores located across the U.S. All proceeds are funneled back into funds for American Olympic athletes.

Still, there are a handful of items limited to USA House. Among them is a Nike-created T-shirt that boasts the logo of Beijing Normal University and the U.S. High Performance Training Center that was developed there.

"Those two things commemorate their role and this venue and our Olympic experience," Korbus said. "We wanted something special that was limited to USA House that represented that."