Beijing Is All Dressed Up, But No One Is Going

Attendance has been sparse at many Olympic events, including the gold medal match in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Attendance has been sparse at many Olympic events, including the gold medal match in Greco-Roman wrestling. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Amy Shipley and Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 13 -- Chinese Olympic organizers acknowledged Tuesday they were struggling to handle an unforeseen and baffling problem inside Summer Games venues and at the showpiece Olympic Park.

Not enough people.

Two weeks after announcing they had sold every one of the record 6.8 million tickets offered for the Games, Olympics officials expressed dismay at the large numbers of empty seats at nearly every event and the lack of pedestrian traffic throughout the park, the 2,800-acre centerpiece of the competition.

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps won his third gold medal Tuesday in an arena with at least 500 no-shows, and there was a smattering of empty seats Wednesday morning as he captured his fourth gold in the 200 butterfly. The U.S. softball team played in a stadium only about 30 percent full on Tuesday, while the day before, 10 of 18 venues did not reach 80 percent capacity, officials said. Meantime, crowds of tourists and fans have been thin in the extravagantly landscaped Olympic Park, which holds 10 venues including National Stadium.

To remedy the problem, officials are busing in teams of state-trained "cheer squads" identifiable by their bright yellow T-shirts to help fill the empty seats and improve the atmosphere. They are also encouraging residents to apply for access to the heavily secured park.

"We are concerned about the not-full stadiums," said Wang Wei, executive vice president and secretary general for the Beijing Organizing Committee. "Many factors are contributing to this. We are now trying to manage that. . . . [As] for the Olympic Green . . . yesterday they saw not many people inside."

Officials and observers offered several explanations for the empty seats. Some speculated that tickets reserved for sponsors and VIPs might be going unused in preliminary or qualifying rounds as officials with a claim to them wait for the finals. Chinese organizers provided large state-run enterprises with blocks of tickets, particularly to non-marquee events, to distribute to workers. Many of those employees may simply be deciding it is not worth the hassle to use them.

Wang blamed the weather -- both the extreme heat and humidity and the rain showers that washed out some events Sunday -- for keeping many home. He also noted that some tickets include access to more than one session, which could encourage the holders to skip the less interesting events of the day.

Others said the more strict visa restrictions in place this year could be keeping foreign ticket holders away. Across Beijing, hotels and tourist sites are reporting below-average attendance for August. Many of the foreigners in Tiananmen Square, under tight security for the Games, are not individual tourists but part of Olympic delegations.

"Business is worse than at this time last year," said a receptionist at a 22-room hotel in Beijing's Chongwen district, where rooms cost $28 a night. "It's the season for traveling and last year the hotel was full. The Olympics should have brought business to Beijing, but the reality is too far from the expectation."

Whatever the cause, the attendance problem has blindsided Chinese organizers, who expected jammed arenas for even obscure sports and throngs across Olympic Park.

The International Olympic Committee encouraged the Chinese to address the issue. "We've been saying, 'You're missing a great opportunity to get more of your people in here to celebrate your games,' " said Kevan Gosper, vice chairman of the IOC's coordination commission for Beijing. "I would want to stress how important it is for the host city that the venues are seen to be full and everybody has the opportunity to enjoy the festivities."

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