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Beijing Is All Dressed Up, But No One Is Going

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."

The Chinese had hoped masses of cheering fans and Olympic revelers would help present their country in the best possible light, as the Games are being televised to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 4 billion. Tickets had been in such demand that the release of the last 250,000 created a scene of havoc last month when more than 30,000 people mobbed Beijing's ticket center. Officials from other countries complained they weren't getting enough tickets because China offered so many to its own residents.

Though Opening Ceremonies tickets sold for $645, nearly 60 percent of the tickets cost $13 or less.

Organizers proudly announced the sellout of the Olympic tickets at the end of July, expecting this Summer Games would provide a significant and welcome contrast to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. International worries about terrorism and local disinterest hurt ticket sales there; organizers sold only about two-thirds of the 5.3 million tickets offered, and many events were poorly attended.

"We've seen from past Games experience that each host country and its cultures has differing appreciations for the various sports which means some venues are packed, others not so," Giselle Davies, an IOC spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. "As regards Beijing, for the venues that aren't full, the organizers are working on how to offer students and others the chance to see and learn about the sports."

Venues across Beijing were dotted Tuesday by the cheerful cheer squads. At the Fengtai Sports Center Softball Field, about 200 people sporting yellow shirts with "Cheering From Beijing Workers" inscribed on them in English and Mandarin sat in the scorching sun in the outfield bleachers, which were otherwise largely empty. Covering their heads with white caps, towels or pieces of newspaper to stave off the heat, they waved tiny red flags, red fans and inflatable noisemakers. Several described themselves as blue-collar workers who had gotten tickets from their factories or companies and had been schooled in the art of good cheering.

"Today, 50 workers came to do the cheerleading job," said Wang Li, 30, who works for an automobile manufacturer in Beijing. "Our company sends us to softball today, but other workers were sent to other venues to do some work. We come here on shifts."

Wang said the workers had been coached. They learned: "Olympics, Go, Go, Go! China, Go, Go, Go! Beijing, Go, Go, Go!"

Said Wang Wei: "The volunteers are assigned to cheer for both sides in order to provide good atmosphere. . . . The responsibility rests with the . . . venue managers. If they find there are not enough people, too many empty seats, [they should] organize some cheerleaders."

The empty seats have raised the ire of those who made large investments in money and time to secure tickets.

Wu Qifa, 32, a senior digital design engineer, said the attendance at two weekend field hockey games shrank from about 60 percent capacity to perhaps 40 percent when rain swamped the venue. Despite the weather, Wu expressed frustration at the empty seats given the lengths she had gone to obtain them.

"When we wanted tickets, we couldn't buy them," Wu said. "My colleagues tried to buy online but were out of luck. I tried to line up to buy tickets but it was so impossibly crowded. . . . I think that some tickets for foreign countries are not sold out. Or some people who bought the tickets, but could not enter China."

Meng Xianan, 28, a paralegal from Beijing, bought her ticket for men's gymnastics online last year. But her seat for the preliminaries on Saturday was in the last row of the National Indoor Stadium.

"There were quite a lot empty seats in front of me," Meng said. "I suspect the empty seats are free tickets. It's unfair. As soon as I saw the empty seats, I was annoyed."

Added Meng: "I'm going to watch diving in several days. The tickets are from my boyfriend's company, which is one of the sponsors. From what I understand, they couldn't give all their tickets away last weekend. What a waste."

Staff reporters Thomas Boswell, Les Carpenter, Liz Clarke, Michael Lee, Dave Sheinin, Dan Steinberg and Barry Svrluga, and researchers Liu Liu and Zhang Jie, contributed to this report.

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