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Empty Seats Have Olympic Committee Playing Defense

Empty seats and spectators are pictured during the dressage event of the eventing competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games in Greenwich Park, London on Sunday.
Carl Court
AFP/Getty Images
Empty seats and spectators are pictured during the dressage event of the eventing competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games in Greenwich Park, London on Sunday.

Today, London Olympic organizers find themselves beating back insults like serves in a gold medal table tennis match.

On Day 1, there were empty seats at wildly popular events like beach volleyball and gymnastics. And even at the Aquatics Center, where Ryan Lochte smoked everybody in the men's 400 individual medley.

Fans who would've gladly paid the exorbitant ticket prices were fuming. British politicians worried that the empty seats made the country look uninterested.

So, officials London organizers and the International Olympic Committee spent the morning giving their side of the story.

Lord Sebastian Coe, the former middle distance runner who now runs the London committee, led the defense.

First, he said, there weren't all that many empty seats. Rather, he said, the venues were "stuffed to the gunnels."

The seats that were empty belonged to members of the Olympic family, he explained. That includes sports federations, athletes, journalists and sponsors. And those people may have been moving between venues or in some other situation that left seats empty.

Coe said the organizing committee already had a program that would offer tickets to area teachers and students. And, he said, soldiers who have been called in to help with security would also be invited to fill unused seats.

At a press conference, his main point was this: These things happen at the Olympics and you can't get too exercised about a few empty seats in the early days.

Sure you can.

"Do you accept that it looks bad, it looks a bit shambolic, that you have to call out the Army to make things look good?" one reporter asked.

Lord Coe was having none of that.

"I don't think there's a single person out there that would think it is shambolic asking the military — given the way they've stepped up to the plate in the last few weeks — if they're in a rest period, if they'd like to watch sport."

(Have you ever heard the word "shambolic" tossed around at an American press conference?)

Another reporter offered to show officials a bloc of empty seats at a men's gymnastics event.

Still, Coe wasn't having it. "This is not something we should be extrapolating dramatically from the first day of an Olympic game."

In addition to helping out teachers, kids and soldiers, the London Organizing committee is pledging to sell unused tickets to the general public when possible.

That's as it should be, says Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He told the BBC that letting the public have the seats "creates the best atmosphere."

Frankie Fredericks, of the International Olympic Committee, disagreed: "Athletes have trained four years to come and have this chance and I don't think that they look to see if there are 200 chairs empty or 4 chairs empty."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vickie Walton-James
Vickie Walton-James is Chief National Editor for NPR News. She oversees a desk of more than 40 reporters, editors and producers based in Washington, D.C., and in more than a dozen bureaus around the country. National Desk correspondents cover domestic breaking news and beats that include immigration, criminal justice and national security across all NPR platforms. Before assuming her current position in 2014, Walton-James was the network's Deputy National Editor and held other senior management positions.