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Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Friends and money in Athens

By Jim Caple
Page 2

ATHENS, Greece -- I'm not sure how the scalper knew I was American, but I suspect it was the Minnesota Lynx T-shirt that I was wearing while I stood in line at the ticket booth outside the Helleniko Olympic Complex on Sunday.

"Excuse me, you're from the United States?'' he asked with a slight German accent. "Do you want a ticket to the basketball game?''

No, I'm going to the Greece-Netherlands baseball game.

"Greece? Why? The U.S. is playing basketball tonight. You should go to that. Only 50 Euro.''

No, I'm much more interested in the baseball game than watching the U.S. beat up on Puerto Rico.

"Make an offer.''

No, I'm going to the baseball game.

"Basketball is right across from the baseball. Make an offer.''

Hmmm. Maybe he's right. What if the U.S. gets upset by Puerto Rico? I'd kick myself if I missed that.

But I don't know where the seat is. I don't know the face value of the ticket. I only know that the basketball game is sold out.

I offer 30 Euro (about $38).

"Thirty-five.''

Thirty.

"Thirty-five,'' he says and starts to walk away.

OK. Thirty-five. I reach for my wallet.

"No, not here! We must go somewhere else and sit as if we are friends.''

A downside of the beefed-up security at the Olympics is the number of people who don't have anything better to do than be on the lookout for scalpers. The scalper tells me it's difficult to make sales, almost as bad as it is at Formula One races. Before he sells me the ticket, he must go through an elaborate pretense that we are just friends having a good time. So we walk to a plaza and sit down on a curb for a friendly chat.

He has longish blonde hair and looks to be in his late twenties. I ask how he got started in scalping, and he tells me he began driving people to trade shows in Hamburg. Then he began sneaking them into the trade shows. And then one day, a security guard stopped him and gave him a handful of trade show tickets to unload. A career was born. He's been doing it for three years.

He says the police busted him at the French Open this year, taking all his money and tickets and threatening him with jail. He avoided that punishment with an ingenious defense. It was all a misunderstanding. He says he told them that he wasn't a scalper, he was gay and he was just trying to pick up the undercover cop for a romantic rendevous.

"And I said it with a completely straight face,'' he says. "They let me go.''

We laugh at the story.

"So, now we are friends,'' he says and slips a crumpled ticket into my backpack. "Now you can give me the money. We are just friends making a small deal.''

I slip him the money and he shakes my hand.

"Someday, maybe we will meet again. And then you will write a book about me and we will go into business.''

Yes, I assure him. That is what we will do. After all, we are now friends, an American sportswriter and a German scalper. The Olympics have made the world just a little smaller.

And as he walks away, I inspect my ticket. It's worth 20 Euro.

My new friend charged me nearly double.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com