Venues still have empty seats

Updated: August 22, 2004, 12:25 PM ET
By Steve Woodward | Special to ESPN.com

ATHENS -- At midday Friday, a line about 20 people deep formed at the Olympic ticket window for archery in front of the ancient Panathinaiko Stadium, best known as the main venue for the 1896 Games. It is not uncommon to observe modest lines when walking past ticket kiosks near official venues. In fact, the opening week of the Olympic Games has been so relatively quiet that it sometimes felt like 1896.

But that changed dramatically Friday night when a surge of humanity descended on Athens Olympic Park, north of downtown, as track and field competition began at the 72,000-seat main stadium and another session of gold-medal finals was on the schedule at the nearby swimming venue. For the first time, security lines were long, and thousands assembled in the vast public promenade in the center of the park, as organizers had envisioned.

On Day 7 of the Athens Games, the ticket paradox raged on.

Tickets have been selling at a rate of 70,000-plus a day this past week, which seems rigorous, but scalpers aren't scalping and numerous venues -- archery, badminton, beach volleyball, boxing, fencing, softball and weightlifting -- often have empty seats, especially during morning events.

Total ticket sales, as of Thursday, exceeded 3.2 million, but that is only 62 percent of the 5.3 million available. By comparison, Sydney 2000 organizers sold more than 7 million tickets, or 92 percent of their inventory.

Marton Simitsek, executive director of Athens 2004, earlier this week predicted sales will max out at 3.5 million and exceed the organization's revenue goal of $221.4 million, noting that these are big numbers for a small country, the smallest Games host since Helsinki, Finland, staged them in 1952.

"If we continue like this, we will reach a record we could not even imagine," Simitsek said. "As we get further along to the final phases of events, we will have larger crowds."

Spokesman Michalis Zacharatos said Olympic venues were at 75 percent capacity across the board Thursday, when 190,077 of a maximum 252,940 seats were occupied. With the start of track and field, officials predicted "super Friday" as 26 sports were contested in 29 of the 37 venues.

Despite statistics that are improving daily, gaping holes in various arena seating areas might be partially the result of non-attendance by global and national sponsors, who purchased 770,000 tickets earlier this year for inclusion in hospitality programs. Sponsors are encouraged to use their tickets but are not under obligation to do so.

The largest packager of corporate and other customized Olympic packages, U.S.-based JetSet Sports, also an Athens 2004 sponsor, owns about 20 percent of the 770,000 tickets, said JetSet founder Sead Dizdarevic in an interview here. To ensure happy clients, Dizdarevic snaps up thousands of extra tickets, but long days followed by evening competitions and post-event hospitality functions almost always find guests staying away from morning sessions as the Games progress. The International Olympic Committee has resisted altering the traditional morning/evening split schedule.

"I have to create my own inventory" for a total of 15,000 guests here on JetSet packages, he said. "If they want it (a ticket to a morning event), I cannot afford not to have it. I have told the IOC but nobody hears me. We've been telling them for years. In the morning, nobody wants to get up."

Day 7 was notable for Games organizers as they were handed the ultimate compliment by the IOC, which canceled its daily coordination commission Games status meeting because operations have run well and there were no pressing issues to discuss.

As taxi drivers and hotel employees around Athens insist, Athenians appear to have stayed away because they view tickets as too expensive -- even though organizers say 48 percent of finals tickets are between 10 and 60 Euros (about $12-$72) -- or because they always wait until the last moment to buy tickets, or simply didn't want to deal with the disruption of their normal pace of life.

"I would have expected from a Greek point of view that people would have supported (the Games) more," said Bill Psarros, an Athens-born independent television producer who spent most of his career working outside of Greece until recently. "I think people got scared by the prices, and the way ticketing was handled (with public sales launched months in advance). That was very strange because (organizers) know Greek people wait to the last minute."

"The Greeks are going to sports they know and those they do not know, as well, but where a Greek athlete has a good to very good chance of doing well," said Alexander Kitroeff, a U.S.-based scholar and author of "Wrestling the Ancients," a new book analyzing the historic ties of Greece and the Olympic Games. "Remember, this is a medium sized country with a much less developed sports and outdoors activities culture than more developed, western Europe."

Athenians worried about hoards of foreign tourists spilling out of hotels, crowding sidewalk bistros and overrunning the popular Plaka pedestrian areas downtown have found relative calm.

"It has been a very quiet Olympics," Psarros said. "It seems there are hardly any people around. It's been very, very strange."

Hotel prices might have played a part in tourism during the Games. A check of the hotel accommodations on the Athens 2004 Web site Friday showed plenty of rooms to be had in a range of properties from luxury hotels, for those without cost limitations, down to more modest inns.

The elegant and freshly renovated Hotel Grand Bretagne in central Athens has rooms aplenty at $900 per night. The Hotel Sofitel at the Athens airport, where a room can been had for about $240 a night on Aug. 30, the day after the Games end, is currently available at the inflated rate of just under $600.

An impulse buyer could even book a berth on the world's largest and most opulent passenger ship, the Queen Mary 2 docked in the Port of Piraeus, for about $1,800 and up.

JetSet operates the hotel reservations system for Athens 2004, also known by the acronym ATHOC. Dizdarevic said ATHOC paid hoteliers up front for about 25,000 rooms and now faces the reality of not being able to recoup that investment.