It seemed as if most of the local populace of 7 million was out and about Moscow today, doing something...strolling, sightseeing, shopping, swimming in the Moscow River, playing games or perhaps getting married. The town was bustling with people doing everything, in fact, except watching Spartakiade, the National Games of the Peoples of the U.S.S.R.
The vast Grand Arena of Lenin Central Stadium - the hub of the Spartakiade, as it will be of next summer's Olympic Games here - was practically deserted this afternoon, as it has been every day since the gala opening ceremonies last Saturday, when it was packed to its 103,000-seat capacity.
Attendance at Spartakiade has been so sparse that, if Bob Short owned the franchise, one could reasonably assume that he would move it to Minsk.
The problem is not that Muscovites are stay-at-homes. That hardly is the case.
Red Square was so jammed this morning with tourists and local residents that by mid day the line of people waiting to get into Lenin's mausoleum stretched almost as far as the red brick walls of the Kremlin. The wait to view the body of the leader of the Russian revolution - a solemn and moving experience for most Soviets - was estimated at two hours, unless you happened to be a bride or groom in full wedding regalia.
It is a custom in this country where religion is officially frowned upon that newlyweds, after exchanging their vows, lay a wreath of flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the corner of the Kremlin wall. They have their photo taken there, often with the other principals in the wedding party, and they move to the head of the line to view Lenin in repose. No waiting for the just-betrothed.
Today wedding cars nearly outnumbered the tour buses parked near the Kremlin gates. Mostly Volga sedans, box-like and somewhat reminiscent of oldtime Nash Ramblers, they were decorated with streamers, ribbons and balloons, and had large, gold facsimiles of intertwined wedding rings on the roof.
It is the season for matrimony here, and such colorfully decorated cars could be seen all over town.
The streets and playing fields as well as the wedding chapels of the city were full of activity. The muddy Moscow River received its share of swimmers even though the cool and overcast day was not very conducive to bathing. But the arenas where the games of the two-week Spartakiade were going on remained curiously empty.
At the sprawling Luzhniki sports complex - where Lenin Stadium, the Sports Palace, swimming pool and several other facilities are located - many more people seemed to be enjoying Saturday afternoon at their own leisure than observing the afternoon's program of track and field, swimming and volleyball.
There were a few pockets of enthusiasts in Lenin Stadium, but mostly huge expanses of white cement slabs - empty seats that made one think he had wandered in on a convention of Jaycees, or perhaps the Young Capitalist League, rather than the final stages of a national sports fest that supposedly involved 100 million participants in its earliest stages.
Track and field has not been the only event left wanting for spectators. Even such normally sure-drawing sports as gymnastics and swimming have attracted only modest audiences. Only the chess hall, where world champion Anatoly Karpov and former champion Boris Spassky have been competing against the upcoming kings and pawns of chess in an all-Soviet competition, have there been consistently good crowds.
Luzhniki is a popular weekend spot for Moscovites even when there are no events on, and so today locals did pretty much what they would on any summer Saturday. They played tennis and soccer and walked through the wooded paths, munching ice cream cones and pausing to browse through books and souvenirs set up on tables under orange umbrellas.
The main entrance to Lenin Stadium - a wide, paved walkway, lined on either side by trees, that passes a large statue of Lenin clutching his cloak and looking with fierce determination over the treetops to the rooftops in the distance - was alive with people scurrying or shuffling in all directions. But few followed the flame of Spartakiade, burning brightly from the Olympic torch atop the stadium.
Inside, few people watched the events taking place on the red, eight lane Tartan track that circles a natural grass soccer field used today for the discuss and hammer throws.
A number of explanations have been offered for the poor showing of Spartakiade as a spectator attraction - most notably the unseasonably chilly and rainy weather of the past week. Soviet authorities pored over meteorological records dating back more than half a century before choosing the dates of the 1980 Olympics - the same two weeks as this year's Spartakiade - but the sunny, dry norm indicated by history certainly has not held true.
Vladimir Popov, vice president of the Olympic Organizing Committee for next year's Games, admitted at a press conference on Friday that sports officials here are disappointed by the attendance at Spartakiade, which in past years has been held in different venues all over the country. (This year, in preparation for a similar arrangement for the Olympics, a few events are being held in Leningrad, Tallinn, Minsk, Klev and Riga, but the vast majority of the program is in Moscow.)
"I think the main cause is that so many events are being staged simultaneously at different facilities in Moscow, and perhaps the Soviet press - while it is full of news about the competitions - has not given sufficient information about the times and places of events. This we must improve," said Popov, undoubtedly sending a collective cringe through the editors and correspondents of the government-controlled Moscow dailies.
"Certainly the unusual and erratic weather we are having for July is a factor. And I think we can attribute the smaller-than-expected audiences to the very good work of television," Popov added. "Sometimes it is more comfortable to stay at home and watch on television from an armchair in your living room, particuarly in bad weather, than to come to the sites."
Weather, confusion as to exactly what is happening when and where and saturation coverage on TV are all plausible explanations for why Spartakiade has been a bust at the gate. But an interpreter offered a more interesting reason:
"All events in Spartakiade are free. There is no charge to the public," she said. "I think if they charged admission maybe more people would come. There is this feeling that if something is free it is not worth seeing."
This logic does not apply to Lenin's tomb, of course. There is no charge for seeing Big Daddy Bolshevik lying in state, and he has for years been the most popular spectator attraction in town, outdrawing even the Bolshoi and the world famous circus and puppet theaters of Moscow.
But as for sporting events, Ms. Translator may have hit the nail on the head. Even in a Communist state, nobody trusts a freebie.
The Olympics will have no such attendance problems. Already there is far more demand than supply of tickets. The 600,000 tourists who will come to Moscow for the Games will in many cases have to settle for tickets they are not really interested in, because the most popular events are way oversubscribed. Ticket prices range from two to 18 rubles (approximately $3 to $18).
And nothing will be free. Even for newlyweds.