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Lagging Ticket Sales Mean Venues Are Full of Empty Seats

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 16, 2004; Page A01

ATHENS, Aug. 15 -- The Olympic crowd tried to roar with approval as the world's best female gymnasts did cartwheels and back flips inside the shiny new Olympic Indoor Hall. But the cheers kept dying out, smothered by thousands of vacant seats in an arena that was at least three-quarters empty.

The Games entered their second full day of competition Sunday, but already attendance has been so far below expectations and sellouts so infrequent that ticket scalpers are losing their shirts. Passes for the most popular sports -- gymnastics, swimming, tennis -- are widely available. The nonstop television coverage frequently glosses over the painful fact that many of the world's best athletes are competing in front of minuscule audiences.

Four fans from Brazil were the only occupants of an entire section of seats during the action at the Olympic Beach Volleyball Center. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

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At the women's gymnastics team qualifying round Sunday, so few people showed up that hawkers were trying to dump tickets for less than half price. Christina Pantaleo, a 27-year-old American from New Jersey, said she was stunned to discover that she was able to walk up at the last minute and score a ticket for $36, far below the $80 face value.

"I couldn't believe it," said Pantaleo, who had trouble securing tickets to the Games online months ago. "Gymnastics is a huge Olympics event. It's one of the first ones that come to mind when you think of the Summer Games."

Other sports are doing even worse. Women's softball and field hockey games over the weekend attracted hundreds of fans, not the thousands that were hoped for. Historic Panathinaiko Stadium -- the site of huge crowds during the 1896 Olympics -- was eerily empty Sunday for the archery competition. Volunteers appeared to outnumber spectators at the equestrian events.

Olympic organizers said they had sold 2.9 million tickets as of Saturday, slightly more than half of the 5.2 million available for the Games. Officials with the Athens Organizing Committee have said they needed to sell 3.4 million tickets to meet their financial projections.

Athens has been dogged for months by concerns about potential terrorist threats to the Games, despite a decision by the Greek government to spend a record $1.5 billion on security. A rash of bad publicity about doping scandals and construction delays hasn't helped, either.

Local leaders have been issuing public pleas for Greeks to buy more tickets as a point of national pride, but after hitting a high of about 90,000 in daily sales earlier in the week, purchases fell to 33,000 on Friday and 48,000 on Saturday.

Olympic officials partly blamed the slump on a national holiday that was declared to coincide with the Opening Ceremonies on Friday. They announced that they would open 35 more sales locations and begin an advertising campaign on Greek television.

"We are confident we will reach our targets," said Michalis Zacharatos, a spokesman for the Athens Organizing Committee. "We have another 15 days of competition . . . and we are certain that the Greeks will fill the stadiums."

But lines at ticket booths were nonexistent at the main Olympic stadium complex on Sunday, another national holiday that saw many Greeks head to the islands or the beach instead of the Games.

Aphrodite Chatzodlou, an archaeologist from Athens, spent the afternoon watching women's gymnastics and said she already had secured tickets for early rounds of basketball, soccer, water polo and tennis. "This is the meaning of the Olympic Games, to see many sports," she said. "You have to support all the athletes from the beginning, not just during the finals."

But she acknowledged that she was perhaps more intrigued by the Olympics than most of her countrymen, having studied the ancient Olympics as a scholar. "I have a personal interest, more than other people who don't really know the history," she said.

Attendance was far better at the Summer Games four years ago in Sydney, where organizers sold more than 6 million tickets, and in Atlanta in 1996, where 8.6 million were sold.

Many visitors from outside Greece said a lack of affordable hotel rooms in Athens and difficulties in obtaining tickets had dissuaded more people from coming.

Jessica Wall, a 21-year-old Australian from Sydney, said she was unable to find a place to stay in advance but loaded up her backpack and came to Greece anyway. Things worked out when she met a young swimmer from Ireland named Eamon Foley, who invited her to stay with him. Since arriving, they've bought tickets for soccer, beach volleyball and tennis -- all of which they had expected to be sold out.

"It was so packed in Sydney, it was ridiculous," Wall said of the 2000 Games. "Here, you can just walk up to the ticket counter 10 minutes beforehand. It's awesome."

At the women's gymnastics competition Sunday, a group of British fans scratched their heads over the absence of spectators. Mike Swallow and his wife, Tania, both gymnastics coaches, said they last attended an Olympics in 1972 in Munich, where even practice sessions were sold out.

"I'm absolutely amazed. I can't believe it, actually," Swallow said. "It's sad for the Greeks, because I think they've done a good job otherwise putting all this together."

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