Although the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing won't get under way for nearly eight more months, travelers who want to catch the sporting world's most lavish extravaganza will need the endurance of a marathoner and speed of a sprinter to score tickets in the Chinese capital.

Reasonable prices -- the cheapest seats at a few less-popular events, such as baseball, go as low as $5 -- combined with carefully rationed quotas allocated country by country by Chinese officials, have created high demand for tickets to the Games, which will occur Aug. 8 to Aug. 24. Of course, most tickets command higher prices; the cheapest seats for the men's basketball finals, a crowd pleaser, start at $51 and top out at $171.

At the opening ceremony in Beijing's new National Stadium, the best seats in the house are priced at $773; tickets for the closing ceremony in the same stadium cost $488. Buyers are limited to two tickets for each ceremony and eight tickets for individual competitions, with a cap of 48 total tickets per buyer.

The real problem, though, won't be containing yourself and buying only 48 tickets to the Games; it will be getting tickets at all, especially to the events in which you are probably most interested. The first batch of seats went on sale last year, and most are already gone. Right now, ticket sellers are advising international fans to stand by until the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad releases more inventory at a time yet to be determined. Buyers will need to move fast when that happens, as the number of tickets is certain to be small.

Failing that, fans can wait until corporations and individuals who have already snapped up coveted tickets put their extras on eBay ( EBAY) and the like -- undoubtedly at robust mark-ups. This will happen starting in July, when Beijing organizers ship the tickets.

At least Americans and other international visitors won't have to play a game of chance to land tickets, as many mainland Chinese do. Overwhelmed Chinese officials tried, and scrapped, a first-come, first-serve system, then launched a second phase of ticket sales earlier this month by creating a national ticket lottery. International fans have it easier, at least in theory; you simply contact the officially designated ticket seller in your country and see what it has available.

In the U.S., the sole official ticket seller for the Beijing Games is CoSport, a private company that also operates tours and books hotel rooms for the Games, and has the U.S. franchise to do the same for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and 2012 Summer Games in London. CoSport sells tickets to the Beijing Games online and over a toll-free telephone line at 1-877-457-4647.

The company's Web site includes a full schedule and a map of Olympic venues. As of Dec. 20, however, CoSport's site marked all events as sold out, and this will presumably not change until BOCOG allocates more tickets to American buyers. CoSport says it does still have hotel and Games ticket packages available.

Could there be workarounds? Maybe. Some mainland Chinese and registered foreign residents of the People's Republic -- such as long-time expatriates -- already have tickets. So do residents of Hong Kong, which is using a different system to sell tickets than the mainland.

In Hong Kong, Olympics tickets are sold to locals by designated ticket seller China Travel Service, which also handles tickets to the Olympic equestrian events, all of which will be held in Hong Kong. Frustrated overseas fans could buy tickets for the main Beijing events from friends in mainland China or expat pals in Hong Kong. However, Beijing and Hong Kong officials have issued stern warnings to overseas ticket-seekers not to try this, saying they could be turned away at the Games if their personal identification doesn't match that of the original buyer's.

For those lucky, persistent or creative enough to snare tickets, attending the Olympic Games' signature events in Beijing should be a fascinating experience. Chinese officials see the Olympics as a national coming-of-age party and a splashy showcase for China's modernization, and they are sparing no effort or expense to make the Olympics a high-profile, global success.

In line with this, the city is finishing up an ambitious upgrade of its infrastructure, digging new subway lines, expanding Beijing Capital International Airport and running a new rail line from the airport to central Beijing in time for the Games, which are expected to attract some two million visitors to the capital.

As formidable as finding tickets to the Beijing Olympics can be, the ticket situation -- along with finding good hotel rooms and airline tickets to Beijing in August -- is still fluid. For Americans who want to go to the Games, checking and re-checking the CoSport Web site is a must.

Several other sources, such as the Web site of the International Olympic Committee and the BOCOG site, are worth keeping up with, too. Ticket problems or other issues? E-mail BOCOG here.

David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.

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