The new spectator sport: getting tickets to the Olympics

Monitor reporter Peter Ford braves the online ticket 'beast' and mysterious callers - all in his quest to cover the Games in Turin, Italy, next month.

It sounded like the perfect journalistic assignment for a sports fan such as myself: Order tickets to 10 Winter Olympics events of my choice, then go to Turin, Italy, in February to write about them for the Monitor.

Well, the Turin bit of this job had better be good, because the order-the-tickets preliminaries have been a nightmare.

Not that there was any dramatic shortage of seats when I went onto the Turin Olympics ticketing website in early December. Sure, figure skating tickets were scarce, and it's a good thing I have no burning urge to attend the opening ceremony: The tickets for that started at $300 and went above $1,000. But there was a decent enough selection for a dilettante such as myself.

When I hit "enter" to submit my order, however, all I got was a message saying that the site was unable to process my request at this time. So I tried again later. And still later. And again the next day.

Eventually, I rang the ticket office and placed my order over the phone. The young woman who took it, however, was punching the data into exactly the same system; she had the same problem.

Perhaps, she suggested, I should break my order into two batches of four tickets. Even that subterfuge failed several times, but in the end I fooled the beast and slipped my orders past it. I knew I had succeeded because within hours the system, so slow to cough up my tickets, had debited my credit card.

"Tickets will be shipped, a few weeks before the start of the Games, via a secure courier," the order confirmation web page promised me.

So when five weeks later a young man rang me, and in conspiratorial tone let me in on the secret that he had a confidential package for me "related to your journey to Italy next February," I guessed it contained my tickets.

The mystery caller refused to confirm that however, and said only that the courier company he represented, TNT, required me to choose a day for delivery and stay at my declared address from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

That, I told him, was impossible. I am a journalist. I have work to do. I go out sometimes. That flummoxed him. He said he would call back if he thought of a solution.

Actually, a young woman named Julie called me back a few days later, but without a solution. Either I promised to stay put all day or I could not have my tickets. No, the deliveryman could not say whether he would come in the morning or the afternoon. Delivery routes and time-tables are secret. It's a question of the terrorist threat, I was told.

Terrorist threat? In the end, my wife promised to stay home all day on Thursday, so we had a deal. In case of last-minute changes, which number should I call? "You can't call us," I was told. Would there be a tracking number attached to this package? "No." And if no one was there to receive the tickets they would be sent back to Italy, I was warned.

All this made me suspicious enough to call TNT customer service. There was no one named Julie in the delivery department, they said. If I had not been given a tracking number, something was wrong. Neither my name nor my address showed up in their database.

They thought perhaps Julie may be trying to scam me and suggested I call the police. But she hadn't asked for my credit card number, so I called Turin instead. Sure enough, they had me down for ticket delivery next Thursday, by TNT.

So I rang TNT customer service again and a man promised to investigate. An hour or so later he called back, extremely shamefaced, to report that TNT was indeed responsible for distributing Olympic tickets in France, but that security was so tight around the special delivery group that its existence was being kept secret - even from customer service.

By this time my wife was no longer free on Thursday to take delivery of the package. How about leaving the tickets at the bakery downstairs? I asked TNT. That would be OK, they conceded, but the driver would need sufficient proof of identity before handing anything over.

So now the baker's wife and her two assistants are each armed with a sheaf of papers, ready for the TNT driver next Friday. Madame Lanterne, Lucie, and Celine each have a letter from me authorizing them to take delivery of the package, a photocopy of my National Identity Card proving that I am me, and a photocopy of their own National Identity Card proving to TNT that they are them.

I can't think of any snags. But after all I've been through with TNT, I can't rule out the possibility that I might have to watch these Olympic Games on TV.

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