For Ticket Purchases, Order Early And Pick Alternatives

WANT tickets for the 1996 Olympics? Head to your local supermarket or Home Depot beginning May 1. More than 15,000 grocery stores will carry 35 million ticket brochures at special displays of Coca-Cola products. One million of the forms will be available at 335 Home Depot Stores across the country. (Yes, Coca-Cola and Home Depot are Olympic sponsors.)

The 48-page brochure contains a schedule of the Games' 542 sessions and a two-page ticket-request form. Tickets will be sold by mail over a seven-month period. Prices range from $7 (baseball) to $265 (basketball, gymnastics, and badminton) for athletic events and from $212 to $637 for the opening and closing ceremonies.

The best advice, Olympic officials say, is don't delay -- otherwise, you may not have a chance at getting into big-demand events like swimming, gymnastics, or the finals of any big sport.

About half the events, in fact, are likely to be oversubscribed. If your order is postmarked before June 30, however, yours and all other requests for oversubscribed events will be thrown into an Olympic pool of sorts. A computer system called FairTix will randomly determine who gets the most sought-after tickets. Requests for other tickets will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis. Organizers predict that half the events will sell out in the first two months.

The Atlanta Olympics has 11.2 million tickets available. Four million choice tickets are reserved for VIPs and sponsors. Barcelona, on the other hand, had 3.9 million tickets for sale, total, and Los Angeles 6.9 million. Atlanta's attendance projections are ambitious -- and organizers are counting on heavy ticket sales to offset a $1.58 billion budget. But an Eastern Time zone, more events, and more participating nations will give Atlanta a bigger on-the-ground audience, organizers say.

Some other Olympic ticket tips:

r Buyers may order up to 16 ''preferred,'' or first-choice, sessions. For each preferred session, customers are urged to list two alternate sessions.

r There is a limit of four tickets per order for high-demand events, including: track and field finals; certain preliminaries in men's basketball; semifinal and final rounds of men's and women's basketball; quarterfinals, semifinals, and final rounds of boxing; all diving; all artistic gymnastics; most swimming; semifinal and medal rounds of tennis; and quarterfinals, semifinals, and medal rounds of volleyball.

* There is a limit of two tickets per order for opening and closing ceremonies.

* Payment is required at the time of ordering, either by check or Visa.

* In addition to a $1 fee for each preferred ticket requested, each total order will require a $15 processing fee.

* Telephone and box office sales won't begin until 1996.

* Orders will be confirmed this fall. Tickets will be delivered by spring 1996.

* You don't need a ticket to see the marathon or bicycle road-racing -- on the course, that is.

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