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The Crowd, and Its Roar, a No-Show at Games So Far

August 17, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Four days into the Olympics, crowds at many venues have been sparse, with television coverage beaming shots around the world of row upon row of empty seats -- an image organizers had sought for years to avoid.

At the 2000 Sydney Games, beach volleyball at Bondi was the rocking place to be; here, during daytime matches, TV cameras show an empty blue upper deck with every serve. At the gymnastics competition, entire blocks of orange seats have gone unfilled. There were no more than a few dozen fans in the stands Monday morning for archery at the historic Panathinaikon stadium in central Athens.

Athens organizers took exception to any suggestion that crowds were unduly low, saying the Games were on target to make revenue projections and that they expected attendance to pick up as the competition built toward more of the medal rounds.

"Of course we'll be seeing a big increase," Michalis Zacharatos, a senior Athens 2004 official, said Monday.

But how big an increase remains unclear, posing a challenge for organizers as empty seats threaten to become a defining image of the Games.

On Monday, total tickets sold were expected to pass 3 million; a total of 5.3 million were available before the Games. By comparison, about 7 million tickets were sold at Sydney, a record 92% of the total available.

The sluggish tally can be explained in part by the failure of huge numbers of tourists to materialize and, for Greeks, a combination of lack of interest, August vacations, dismay over the fall of their athletic heroes and what some call Olympic fatigue.

"If it continues this way, it's a real tragedy," said John Mac- Aloon, a University of Chicago professor and expert on the history of the Olympic movement. "It gives a false impression to international viewers that it's difficult to get seats or get transportation to and from the venues. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tickets are readily available. The transportation system is working marvelously."

Behind the scenes, television executives from around the globe have been pleading with organizers to do something to fix the problem, recalling the size and exuberance of the crowds at earlier Olympics, such as the 1994 Winter Games in Norway.

"You need the noise. You need the Lillehammer effect," said a television executive not affiliated with U.S. broadcaster NBC, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Lillehammer was magic because it had the people. Why do you watch TV? To watch empty concrete? If there's nobody there, it's nothing."

Organizers say they will not give out free tickets or corral schoolchildren to fill seats, or even offer discount tickets. They also said that empty seats were to be expected over the weekend because of celebrations Sunday for a religious holiday. "We are very, very satisfied with ticket sales so far," Zacharatos said.

Organizers have expected some empty seats for years.

They knew security concerns had dimmed attendance prospects for these Games -- the first since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Bombings in Madrid and Istanbul, Turkey, also contributed to an unease among some who might have considered traveling to Greece. One travel packager had predicted that the U.S. turnout would be 20% less than in Sydney.

Moreover, the long run-up to the competition here featured ample publicity about construction delays and doping scandals, especially the ongoing case involving Greek track stars Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou. The scandal continues to dominate all local news in Athens, far outweighing the Games in importance.

"They made fools of Greece, that's why everyone is staying away from the Games," said a taxi driver in his mid-50s named Giorgo. He wouldn't give his last name, but said he appreciated the Olympics because he hoped to make lots of money in fares during the two-week event.

Privately, organizers also had expressed reservations about the Greek public's unfamiliarity with such sports as team handball and badminton.

In addition, they had voiced concerns about the ability of workaday Greeks to buy tickets, since the per-capita income here is about $11,000. For that reason, some tickets are priced as low as 10 euros, or about $12; many of the lower-priced tickets are to soccer games.

At the high end: 350 euros, about $420, to track and field finals and other traditional Olympic attractions.

Although the Greek government required workers in public utilities, security and related fields to stay put and forgo their vacation, tens of thousands of the Greeks most likely to be able to afford tickets fled to their summer haunts.

"I'm not going. When can I go? How can I go? I have to work," said Athens resident Dina Kiriapoulou, 57. "Besides, we found no tickets for any of the finals, which is the only games we would go to."

Many Greeks are simply sick and tired of the whole thing, a kind of Olympic fatigue after years of planning and much criticism of Greece's efforts.

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