Absent ‘family’: Thousands of empty seats at ‘sold out’ Olympic venues

Soldiers sit in the empty seats held by the IOC as they watch the women's gymnastics qualification in the North Greenwich Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games July 29, 2012 (Reuters / Mike Blake)
Organizers of the London Olympics have been forced to give free tickets to soldiers as events sold out to the public months ago have rows and rows of empty seats. Bureaucrats and VIPs from the so-called “Olympic family” are blamed.

­The tennis at Wimbledon, the beach volleyball on Horse Guards Parade, and the gymnastics in the North Greenwich Arena, formerly The Dome, where the UK team was considered one of the favorites, remained half-empty – despite no tickets ever being on general sale. Entire blocks of empty seats – almost always those with the best views near the action – have been seen on millions of TV screens during the live broadcasts.

Jeremy Hunt, the Olympics Minister, said the lack of spectators was “very disappointing”, while the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Locog, has promised a “full review”.

A spectator sits amid empty seats at the All England Lawn Tennis Club during the women′s singles match between Denmark′s Caroline Wozniacki and Great Britain′s Anne Keothavong at the London 2012 Olympics Games July 28, 2012 (Reuters / Stefan Wermuth)
A spectator sits amid empty seats at the All England Lawn Tennis Club during the women's singles match between Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki and Great Britain's Anne Keothavong at the London 2012 Olympics Games July 28, 2012 (Reuters / Stefan Wermuth)

Unhappy families

Working out just who is not taking the prime seats, has proved a challenge in itself. Initially, the sponsors, who are given 8 per cent of the seats, were blamed.

"It doesn't obviously appear to be a sponsorship issue at the moment," countered Locog chairman Sebastian Coe.

Instead, the amorphous “Olympic family” has now been fingered as the main suspect. This includes the bureaucrats organizing the games, their guests, the athletes themselves (those not competing in the event) and the media.

In total, these partners receive about a quarter of the seats at most venues, and even more at marquee events such as the opening ceremony, which also seemed to empty out as the teams of athletes entered the stadium, despite being oversubscribed by a factor of ten when tickets originally went on sale.

"There are tens of thousands of people at the moment within the accredited “family” who are trying to figure out what their day looks like," said Coe in defense of the absentees.

A spectator sits among empty seats as he waits for the start of the final session on the first day of the swimming competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre July 28, 2012 (Reuters / Jorge Silva)
A spectator sits among empty seats as he waits for the start of the final session on the first day of the swimming competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre July 28, 2012 (Reuters / Jorge Silva)

Army to the rescue

Public anger has forced Locog to scramble for solutions. Their answer has been to turn to soldiers and schoolchildren.

“So we were able to move those troops – I'm not quite sure whether they were on a rest period or whether it was a transition from work through to a rest period, but they're sitting there enjoying the gymnastics,” explained Coe.

Children from nearby schools, who were on waiting lists, were also bussed in at short notice to take up the empty seats.

Coe said that tickets from those leaving early will be re-sold at the entrance, and Lord Moynihan of the British Olympic Association has touted the “30-minute rule”. This would mean that if seats are not taken up within half an hour of the start, they are given for free to people queuing outside. Another measure would give fans in the cheap seats an opportunity to move up to the VIP sectors.

It is not clear whether it will be possible to implement these measures halfway through the Games, which have been in preparation for the past seven years, but Lord Coe rejected calls for non-observing officials to be stripped of their free seats.

“Let's not run away with ourselves here,” said Coe.

“It's not for the organizing committee to remove accreditation.”

For many in the UK, the empty seat imbroglio has added insult to injury, after millions lost out in a lottery in which punters often had to make hundreds of pounds worth of bids to have any chance of receiving any tickets at all. There were more than 15 million failed applications for the 6.6 million available tickets.

However, Coe believes the situation will improve as the Olympics move from preliminary heats to the finals, and more and more athletes and officials arrive in London.

Spectators sit among empty seats during the men′s Group A volleyball match between Britain and Bulgaria at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Earls Court July 29, 2012 (Reuters / Ivan Alvarado)
Spectators sit among empty seats during the men's Group A volleyball match between Britain and Bulgaria at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Earls Court July 29, 2012 (Reuters / Ivan Alvarado)