London 2012: Why All The Empty Seats?

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4 years ago, the British media (& no doubt the public behind) mocked Beijing’s Olympics; “Ha! They might of had a great opening ceremony, but look at all those empty seats. Shocking; you won’t see that here”. Okay, so that wasn’t exactly the words used, but it was by-and-large the sentiment expressed.

The British were right to be so optimistic though. After all, despite the fact we are somewhat perennial mediocre and have a fairly low participation rate. Britain is one of the most sport-loving nations in the world – IOC chief, Jacques Rogge, even named us the birthplace of modern sport.

And, as the first ticket window closed last spring, it appeared that empty venues would not be an issue of London 2012 with an unprecedented 1.8million people attempting to get tickets for the games. Overall, there were applications for over 20 million tickets; 3 times the 6.6 million available.

Thousands were thus left disappointed, either failing to get the tickets they really wanted or any at all. Even some of the athlete’s families were let empty-handed; current golden-boy Bradley Wiggins was one such star with London Mayor Boris Johnson also claiming he had failed to attain any for his family.

Fast-forward a year, and as the Olympic came about, we all expected chocker-full stadiums. This has been far from the case as huge swathes of seats are left vacant – including for big finals in events such as the equestrian, swimming and gymnastics.

It is puzzling and frustrating sight for the British public, especially for the thousands who toiled for hours in various different ballots to try and get tickets for the games and failed. The sight of empty venues must be both infuriating and disillusioning. After all, the huge crowds at both the cycling road race and time trial showed the extent of how people want to see some sporting action.

On a personal level, for example, I applied for multiple tennis tickets unsuccessfully; switching on the tv, I see big names stars of Sharapova, Federer, Murray all playing in front of half-empty crowds (Yes, thats half-empty; not half-full). It is a baffling sight.

And we aren’t talking about a few empty seats, dotted-around, here-and-there; but huge chunks and blocks of left unoccupied. Indeed, there seems to be some confusion over the true amount of free seats, with different figures of average 60,000 up to 120,000.

It has a real chance of tarnishing the games and stealing the attention away from the athletes and their sporting achievements. (It has even started a spoof twitter account)

There’s a man sitting on a seat two rows in front of me. Why couldn’t it have been me? *sigh*

@Olympic Seat

So why all the empty seats? Well, the problem with Olympic tickets is that only a certain proportion are put on general sale for the public, with others are set aside for sponsors and the so-called ‘Olympic Family’. Locog, the organising committee for London 2012, have been quick to find out that the issue is with the last group.

This ‘Olympic Family’ accounts for around 17% of the seat allocation and includes the IOC members, members of the different participating national sports federations and Olympic committees – including representatives, coaches and athletes – as well as the media.

It turns out that many of these people are not taking up their tickets, leaving the big sections of the venues empty. Many of these officials are not interested in many of the early rounds and ‘lesser’ sports (trust me; they’ll all turn out for the 100m final), as well as the fact that many athletes and coaches are still in the middle of competing. As seats in prime locations, these are the ones easily visible on tv. Locog has been therefore quick to claim that this is not their fault, as it is part of the rules of hosting the Olympics with public areas claimed to be full.

Yet, while Locog are quick to shift the blame, they need to take some responsibility themselves. A difficult, complicated and unreliable ticketing website lead to much early dissatisfaction with London 2012’s ticketing. Many turned away from attempting to buy tickets after they felt they had been repeatedly let down by the system through numerous ballots and releases.

Unfairness was also a problem as those who had failed in the first ballot got first-come-first serve to any events, including those of the opening ceremony and 100m finals. It infuriated those who had gone for less-popular events in the first ballot just to ensure they got tickets. In a similar problems, synchronised swimming were oversold with many thus allowed to swap them for any event of their choosing.

In reality too, many tickets remained unsold before the games – despite the early unprecedented demand – including high-price bracket opening ceremony tickets, 200,000 football tickets as well as 110,000 for other events. The ticketing system turned full venues into slightly-empty ones. It is therefore wrong for the organisers to claim that all tickets have been sold and absolving all blame from themselves.

Ticketing touting & fake websites also remain a problem. BBC News yesterday reported a few touts around, with a undercover reporter even managing to get some judo tickets. It has emerged that most of these touted tickets have been those sent overseas to national committees and Olympic re-sellers.

A problem at every games: Athens & Beijing

The question also has to be asked though why Locog, knowing this was a problem at every games, did not deal with beforehand either. Why did they not enquire whether seats would be used whilst there was more time to respond to it rather than mere days before? The fact that some of the tickets are from other national Olympic resellers – who thus didn’t manage to sell the tickets given to them – is shocking, considering the demand in the country.

The Telegraph have even reported that up to 70,000 of these tickets may be thrown away as it is not cost-effective to return them, whilst another 50,000 are being held back to make a last-minute killing. It is a dangerous game and could leave empty seats at big events like the 100m final.

The biggest loss, of course, is that the motto of the games is to ‘inspire a generation’; young potential athletes are now sitting at home rather than live at the events. As Jack Winter wrote the other day, watching elite sports live is a far superior experience than on the tv, thus these people are far less likely to be inspired.

The solution to stop the problem has been two-fold; firstly to give out some tickets to soldiers and school children. Though this fills the empty gaps – and no one is likely to begrudge these sections of the population getting these tickets – it does not necessarily solve the public disenchantment with the issue and games overall. In many ways, it is no better than the yellow-shirted volunteers that Chinese officials bused in during Beijing.

The yellow-shirted volunteers of Beijing

The other proposal is to put the tickets that aren’t being used back on the ticketing website to be sold on a day-by-day basis. This is still limited, however, with many seats in accreditation areas, thus cannot be sold to the general public.

Nonetheless, some of these areas have been made smaller with over 9,000 tickets sold over the last few days on the night before the respective sporting action. It has now be confirmed that 1,600 tickets will also be sold prior to the athletics start.

Is too little; too late though? After all, most working people in the country will be unable to take days off during week days to fill the empty seats. Some may also just be too exasperated with the system from before that they will be unwilling to try again.

Many have indeed claimed that the current proposal to solve the problem – to resell tickets on the website – remains unclear and unorganized, with several unanswered questions. There does seem a lack of information as to when this new tickets are released onto the website, what events they are for, the amount of tickets and their price bracket. A box office seems a more obvious and easy solution, but has been ruled out. Or why not sell the tickets cheaply if not taken up after 30 minutes; a proposal by BOA chairman Lord Moynihan

Moreover, despite claims that tickets have put back onto the website and resold, the problem persist. Locog claimed 600 tickets were resold for the gymnastics on Monday – where Britain had a men’s team in the final – yet there remained obvious chunks of emptiness around the North Greenwich Arena.

Hundreds of empty seats again in the Aquatic Centre. My parents would’ve given an arm and leg to get in.

Barry Murphy
Irish Swimmer

Indeed, rumours still abound that the ticket system is failing for parents and friends of competitors who are unable to get in to certain events, with the website failing to update in time to say which athletes have reached finals and who can thus purchase tickets. A frustrating occurrence considering the gaps in the crowd.

The Olympics; often regarded as competition now more interested into corporate pandering and sponsorship than sport and spectators, this fiasco is deepening this belief. It is also deeply embarrassing for London as pictures of these venues are beamed around the world.

For now, the ticketing scandal remains a cloud over the games. Let’s just hope it doesn’t become a full blown storm.

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