Blogs & Comment

London's empty seats continue an Olympic tradition

Critics are angered by empty seats in London. But they should have seen this coming.


British soldiers watch the qualifying round of women’s gymnastics. Military and students have been used as seat fillers during the Olympics. (Photo: Gregory Bull/AP)

Why are there so many empty seats at the London Olympics?

That’s the question being asked by critics and hopeful spectators, especially when thousands of Britons have tried—and failed—to acquire tickets. Television viewers have undoubtedly noticed the large pockets of empty seats in prime areas, including at high-profile events like swimming and gymnastics. The situation is severe enough that British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday that organizers needed to “make sure more people get to see more games and also that there are fewer empty seats.”

But this problem isn’t unheard of at the Olympics. Every two years, the same situation plays out and the same headlines are written.

For example, take Beijing, host of the last Summer Olympics. Three months prior to the Games, China’s state-funded wire agency made a bold prediction: “The empty seats that hurt the festive mood of the Athens Olympics won’t be seen in Beijing when the Chinese capital hosts the 2008 Games.” Four years earlier, Athens had sold only two-thirds of its 5.3 million tickets. Beijing’s organizing committee said that all of its 6.8 million tickets were sold out.

But as the Games got underway, poor attendance became a major storyline. The vice-president of Bejing’s organizing committee claimed that humidity and rain kept spectators away, though plenty of people outside the venues were unable to purchase tickets. At some events, hundreds of yellow-shirted “cheerleaders” started appearing. Venue managers recruited the locals—many of whom were blue-collar factor workers—to fill seats and create a less-dreary atmosphere.

According to A.J. Daulerio, who reported on the event for Deadspin, Beijing’s organizers released to the public only about 40% of the tickets. The rest were “freebies” given to Olympic sponsors and officials from the Communist Party and International Olympic Committee. It’s almost certain they skipped out on events, especially preliminary rounds of less glamorous sports. In the wake of this ticketing crisis, a black market for Olympic seats sprang up, to which Chinese law enforcement reportedly turned a blind eye.

If you’ve been following the London headlines, this all sounds very familiar.

Members of the “Olympic family”—IOC and sports federation members, Olympic sponsors, media and other accredited spectators—have shouldered the blame for not using their tickets and leaving seats unoccupied. Those so-called family members, including National Olympic Committees, which sell tickets in their home countries, control 25% of London’s 8.8 million tickets, says The Telegraph. In response, military and students have been drafted to fill the unwanted seats.

To avoid any further PR damage, organizers have quickly moved to sell more seats to the public. Last night, an additional 3,800 tickets across 15 sports were made available and nearly all of them were sold by morning. For the remainder of the Games, a group including London’s organizers, the IOC and sports federations will meet each evening to determine which blocks of tickets for the next day’s events can go back on sale.

Meanwhile, the chair of the British Olympic Association has called on the IOC to take control of ticketing. “The IOC have now got to take a lead and make sure that investment is in place for a state of the art Olympic ticketing programme that can then be improved … from games to games,” said Colin Moynihan. The IOC has said it will review its ticketing system.

But unless the IOC makes wholesale changes to the existing system, expect the same “empty seats” headlines for the 2014 Olympics in Russia and again in 2016 in Brazil. It’s become an Olympic tradition.