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Where are all the crowds?

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Mihir Bose | 12:13 UK time, Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Beijing Olympics is not that unique after all.

Before the Games began, there were two standard Olympic questions that we thought would not need answering in Beijing: how much have the Games cost? And would the venues be packed?

The cost still does not matter - after all the Chinese government has made it happen and there is no question of any public outcry over the near $40 billion that has been spent. Here, you can say it costs a fortune, but no-one cares. The same will not be said for London in four years time.

However, one of China's pitches for the Games was based around the passion of the Chinese for the Olympics. To adapt the line from the famous Hollywood movie about baseball - 'if you build it, they will come'.

But while the Chinese have built great venues, it turns out the crowds have not come, or at least not quite in the numbers expected.

Given that the organisers had assured everyone that all tickets were sold out, this has come as something of a surprise, as my colleague Gordon Farquhar observed a couple of days ago.

I am not saying they have been deserted, unlike the archery in Athens four years ago for example, which was virtually empty and hugely embarrassing for the Greeks at the time.

But take the case of the opening women's hockey match between Great Britain and Germany.

The British fans I spoke to found themselves almost on their own in the empty stands. Their only consolation was they could mourn the British defeat virtually on their own.

On Monday afternoon, as I stood outside the beach volleyball venue where I had been told to expect poor crowds, an American visitor from Atlanta, bedecked with Olympic pins, could not hide his disappointment that he could not get tickets even though venues were not full. His theory was sponsors had taken a lot of tickets, but had not shown up.

Anecdotal this evidence may be, but compared to the previous two Games in Sydney and Athens, I have not seen any huge hotels taken up by Olympic sponsors and used by them, as in the past, to bring over their employees and specially invited guests to the Olympics.

However, there seems to be more to it than that. Take cycling for instance. The road race was an example of crowds being willing to attend but the authorities not letting them. The absence of crowds did not please the cyclists but the official explanation given to the IOC was that while fans were keen to line the routes, the Beijing authorities were concerned about having to cope with large crowds.


Overall it would also seem crowds for events in the evening are better than for morning competition. Certainly the beach volleyball match between Australia and Georgia that I saw was virtually full and not just with the somewhat artificial Chinese cheerleaders.

The general lack of crowds certainly gave the Aussies, in particular their IOC member John Coates, the chance to put one over the hosts, by pointing out Sydney's venues back in 2000 were never less than 90% full, even for preliminary events.

The authorities' response appears to have been to bus people to certain events.
And when the British hockey fans returned to the hockey stadium for the next GB women's match, the stadium was much fuller, with many Chinese bussed in.

This may well turn out to be an early Olympics story and as the Games proceed the crowds may well grow. The Chinese will certainly hope so.

Because at this stage, it seems China may not be all that different in that regard after all.


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  • 1. At 1:51pm on 12 Aug 2008, stormsberg wrote:

    I applied for tickets to all the Track Cycling as we had a great time in Athens, but didn't get any tickets. I also applied and got some Athletics tickets after the Cycling.

    I decided that the cost of flights and accomodation was to much to justify attending for the Athletics.

    I thought i would be able to sell/pass/trade my tickets to someone so that the seats would not go to waste, but i can only pick them up in person in Beijing.

    So when you see lots of empty seats in the crowd, it could be a lot of people like myself.

    At least in Athens, we physically had the tickets, so could pass them on if needed.

    It could be the ticketing that is causing the empty seats.

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  • 2. At 2:14pm on 12 Aug 2008, Greenwich-kid wrote:

    I thought about going (I've been to Beijing several times) and actually the cost of flying to Beijing isn't that high or even staying in a hotel, a Hotel near to Ho Hei is only about 160-200 RMB per night, and if you want to stay oustide the 3rd ring then it would be cheaper. The problem for many people was a reported crack down on Visa's is my guess.

    Shame about having to collect the ticket in person, I wonder if there is a returns option where they can be pooled?

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  • 3. At 2:28pm on 12 Aug 2008, exuberantToe wrote:

    Tickets for the olympics are ridiculousy hard to obtain, even the athletes families do not seem to be able to see the real tickets through the fakes, it really is terrible!!

    I cant believe that these events were empty its such a waste of a fantastic tournament and the athletes taking part. Obviously there are more favourable events and particular countires that spectators want to go to, but in saying that hiring volunteers is just absurd!!

    Send some tickets over here, I can think of many who would love to be there, including me, I love it all. Come on GB, remember your crowds at home.

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  • 4. At 2:35pm on 12 Aug 2008, levdavidovich wrote:

    Perhpas the tickets were snapped up by wealthy westerners months ago, who have found something else to do and aren't even in China? You know the sort of person I mean: Money to burn, and no social repsonsibilty - buy some tickets, deny other people the opportunity to go to the events.

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  • 5. At 2:40pm on 12 Aug 2008, AndrewFR wrote:

    the lack of crowds just tells the truth about a lack of interest in some of these sports. i have to laugh when the BBC and people on these blogs are getting so excited about sports that they pay no attention to at the rest of the time. its total hypocrisy

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  • 6. At 2:49pm on 12 Aug 2008, Ron Norton wrote:

    Here we go again, lets find a negative and report it. When was the last time you reported on actual sports on this blog?.

    I'm sure the Chinese are doing their best.

    How many events have you visited, to back up your story?.


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  • 7. At 2:50pm on 12 Aug 2008, Greenwich-kid wrote:

    The tickets wouldn't have been bought by westerners, as China only allocated 25% of tickets to other countries, where as Athens allocated 50%

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  • 8. At 2:59pm on 12 Aug 2008, Cantab wrote:

    lol this is so funny. I bet if i gave you a free ticket, half of you wouldn't take the time off + but plane + hotel + travel half the way around the world to watch in the heat and rain a sport u can see on tv here.

    "lol give me a ticket, what a waste"

    this is the poor man's irresponsible comment that mirrors a rich man's irresponsible purchase.

    we are all cast in the same mold.

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  • 9. At 3:07pm on 12 Aug 2008, GoonerCow wrote:

    This topic is really bored and again, it shows how BBC is always trying its best to pick on the negative sides on China. Is there really nothing better to report ?

    It is a fact that some sports are more attractive and some are less. Take a look on the basketball match today and two days ago - China - USA; CHINA - SPAIN; I could hardly see any empty seats. Even the equistrian (sorry for the wrong spell) here in Hong Kong; although everyone knows that most of the HK people are not interested in it, the seats are still 90% full today.

    To these BBC reporters, continue to pick on and report the bad things if you like. China is already trying its best and most important I can see all the players are really into the games.

    Let's wait and see for London 2012, can't wait to see what you'll show the world and how Stratford will look like.

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  • 10. At 3:39pm on 12 Aug 2008, parklife76 wrote:

    to GoonerCow....

    in the time you wrote '(sorry for the wrong spell)', you could have found the correct spelling on the web.....

    I think it's a major concern that China, the most dense populated country in the world can not fill these events. This is such a shame and an embarrasement to those disciplines who are suffering the most.

    However come 2012 it won't be the empty seats that will be the problem, it'll be the touts that are charging 3 times the face value. This is my real concern for London, we just have to look at some of the events we hold over here to know that empty auditoriums are never a concern, but we british folks are happy to pay over the odds just to see such events and I can't see this changing for 2012 - which will be such a shayme (sorry about the spell) ;0)

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  • 11. At 3:45pm on 12 Aug 2008, ticket-finder wrote:

    I have been in the secondary ticket market for thirty eight years and never had a meaningful request for any Olympic Games tickets. The most successful events have always been those that concentrate on selling the tickets as fast as they can to people who are prepared to buy them.

    Most of these events are influenced by contracts with official corporate hospitality organisers and travel companies that insist tickets can only be sold as part of a complete package. It is not unusual for the entry price to be £5,000 or more per person. Witness the empty seats at the Cricket World Cup etc.

    The governing authorities are so jealously trying to stop the secondary market in tickets and harnessing the profit for themselves, that they make it almost impossible for ordinary folks to buy them.

    This has taken on epidemic proportions in the UK where restrictions exist on buying tickets for just about any event. Compare this to France where I live - you can buy tickets for anything over the counter or the internet, including Rugby (Internationals), Football (Premier League including the English Premier League), Concerts.

    My experience is that if you leave it to an unfettered market an events true popularity will become evident.

    Most weekends we sell tickets to Milan for both the football and opera as they both engender the same kind of emotional response, whereas athletics for the most part appeals to family members of those taking part.

    I haven't yet mentioned the power of the Americans in all this. The Olympics along with Wimbledon, The Australian Open, The French Open, London Theatre are largely reliant on the travelling American. They are the ones you need to put "bums on seats" at this type of event.

    The economic downturn in the U.S. will have had an enormous influence on the numbers travelling, rather like the late eighties and early nineties. The same can be said for the bomb outrages in London over the years. As soon as a bomb went off the cancellations came through. The tickets had been bought and paid for, but the seats were empty.

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  • 12. At 4:52pm on 12 Aug 2008, Greenwich-kid wrote:

    An excellent post ticket-finder and it's funny we do have a strange culture about tickets, I see the head of EMI even suggested that the law should change and tickets that were sold-on should have to pay an extra licence fee.

    I have to agree about some of the negative comments on the games, I used to be an athlete and when I was in Beijing in June I thought the air quality was pretty good (Subjective I know), especially in comparison to the days of the Iron Curtain. However the press would have you believe that the athletes were in serious danger of lung disease or some such.

    As to expense you can get a flight to Beijing (From London)for as little as £380 and at around £10-20 a day for a hotel with an extra £15 a day for food (and that is eating like a king) then it's not exactly expensive.

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  • 13. At 4:54pm on 12 Aug 2008, Letheringsett wrote:

    I - together with a friend - am in Beijing for two weeks and am frustrated that all the tickets have been "sold out" yet the venues are relatively empty!! So much for an all-inclusive Games!!

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  • 14. At 4:57pm on 12 Aug 2008, croydonrich wrote:

    I wouldnt be so sure that 2012 will be a sell-out. We can all agree that football is the #1 sport in the UK. But how many of the matches that didnt involve Scotland or England were sell-outs in Euro 96? Was the semi final in Manchester even a sell-out ? So what chance a sell-out for sports where there is no prospect of a home medal ? If the stadia for those events hold more than 20 people I wouldnt bank on a sell-out.....

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  • 15. At 6:45pm on 12 Aug 2008, JuniorBean wrote:

    China wants to send a good image to the world and foreigners, they spend so much money on upgrading their facilities and ‘cleaning up’ Beijing but they forgot to spend any money to improve their overseas facilities and image.

    It is so difficult to get into China with most foreigners having to get a visa first. As a tourist, my first impression of the Beijing Olympic isn’t their great facilities in Beijing or friendly smiles of the people there, but it is their consulates where I can get a visa to their country.

    I was very disappointed with their consulate, poor facilities and lack of information, but most importantly the rudeness of their staff is unbearable. They are still decades behind on customer service.

    It put me off so much, I just didn’t bother. If I was going to be treated with such disrespect by their officials, I can’t imagine how I would be treated if I actually go to Beijing.

    Beijing welcome you my az. It’s a no brainer why hardly anyone enjoys the process of going to the games.

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  • 16. At 6:53pm on 12 Aug 2008, thomaslundqvist wrote:

    I certianly hope that London 2012 attempts to emulate Sydney rather than Beijing.

    Beijing all seems rather stale compared to Sydney and even Athens.

    So much is already being said about London's opening ceremony and would the Brits be able to match the spectacle of Beijing.

    But we should remember that the Sydney games were opened with flying fish, cardboard sheep and dancing lawnmowers! Then 3 weeks later, declared the greatest Olympics ever! Proof that you need more than a great opener to host a great games.

    In Britian there is also a passion for sport, that few countries can match. Australia has it, and China certainly doesn't.

    Empty seats are seen everywhere in Beijing. The Olympics are gift to the world, and should also be a gift to the host nation. But I feel China only wants it's middle classes to attend.

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  • 17. At 7:57pm on 12 Aug 2008, gelaconi wrote:

    It seems the Chinese are good at one thing: Faking! They faked the fireworks, the little 'singer' and now they are faking the 'ticket-sold-out' story. If you consider the population of Chinese allowed the luxury of watching the Olympics on-site it will not be surprising to see the poor turn-out. Their solution? Fake the crowd!
    I could bet my last coin the Chinese population is nowhere near the generally accepted one point something billion. It's that simple...they are faking it!!!!



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  • 18. At 10:18pm on 12 Aug 2008, jf_9384 wrote:

    Chill out people, she's only reporting what she's seeing. Surely there would be something that the officials are not doing well and there are things need to be improved, there's no need to be offended.

    The Bejing Olympics has turned many of the people around me to be racists, well, most brits wouldn't show it but you can tell when anything Chinesey comes out they'd say it's fake, the people are making it up etc. etc. And whenever the news reported something about China the Chinese people get so offended and threaten to harm to author. It makes me feel really difficult to live in Britain anymore as I'm somehow in between.

    Hatred certainly doesn't make your life better and it ruins others'.

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  • 19. At 10:04am on 13 Aug 2008, thegillspies wrote:

    China’s admission that they hiring in ‘spectator’s to fill the numerous empty seats, means that whatever the platitudes about this potentially being the ‘best games ever’, by the measure of public support this is certainly not the case. If the organisers cannot ‘encourage’ the population of 1.3billion ‘public’ or the ‘corporates’ to enjoy the plethora of sporting excellence on offer, they will have failed to provide the Best Games.

    London 2012 organisers should therefore not be overawed by the opening ceremony or the ‘no expense spared’ facilities, impressive though they are.
    It will almost certainly be the case that every venue in 2012 will be filled to the rafters, just witness the 1m+ people who came to view the London legs of the 2007 Tour de France, the ever present public queues at wimbledon, or the full stadiums back in Euro 1996, the list can go on.

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  • 20. At 10:09am on 13 Aug 2008, Artumisis wrote:

    where is the tickets? the answer is sponsor.

    You know how hard to get a ticket like me, an everyman in Beijing? I want to buy 3 tickets for my parent and little nephew, i had bough 1 athletics ticket from Internet, 10 times to original price. Want another 2? it's mission impossible,

    When i almost despaired, one of my friend in a big U.S. company, give me 2 almost free. He said their company have lots of tickets, they just pick some 'important' competing, like basketball, the game in Bird nets or water cube; others, like softball, lots of tickets been wasted, because of the sponsor's ticket can't be sell in market!

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  • 21. At 10:26am on 13 Aug 2008, Artumisis wrote:

    The road race pass my home. Hui Long Guan, thousands of people waiting beside the road, include me and my 8 old nephew, 1 hr waiting, Just 2 seconds , they thrill through my sight.

    my nephew was very excited

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  • 22. At 1:22pm on 13 Aug 2008, levdavidovich wrote:

    "The road race pass my home. Hui Long Guan, thousands of people waiting beside the road, include me and my 8 old nephew, 1 hr waiting, Just 2 seconds , they thrill through my sight. my nephew was very excited"

    Best post on an Olympic blog I've seen. Made me smile :)

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  • 23. At 1:35pm on 13 Aug 2008, paulgrantwilliams wrote:

    Excellent comment Artumisis (#21)

    This is what the games should be about; exciting and enthusing youngsters about sport.

    Let's hope the 2012 team ensure free tickets for schools so they fulfil the promises made when we bid for the games.

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  • 24. At 11:51pm on 13 Aug 2008, quietandrewcoe wrote:

    I am surprised you do not know that there is only one reason for empty seats: corporate buying and then not using the tickts.
    I really hope London does not make the same mistake. This is the worst year for this since Barcelona.
    Chinese are crying out for tickets to anything but cannot get them. They alone would fill every venue.
    All the westerners I have met in the the last few days, jncluding myself would buy more tickets if you could get them.
    There need be no empty seats.
    I have been to every Olympics for the full duration since 1988.

    Andrew Coe

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  • 25. At 9:22pm on 14 Aug 2008, David Pajak wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 26. At 3:43pm on 15 Aug 2008, Tramp wrote:

    Never mind about the politics, China shouldn't have got the Olympics because they are not a country which is mad about sports, all the spectators do is cheer madly when they see one of their fellow countrymen competing - unlike Sydney and London (to be) where spectators simply appreciate the competition and respect the competitors no matter where they are from.

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  • 27. At 10:16am on 16 Aug 2008, David Pajak wrote:

    Beijing 2008 has yet to get me on the edge of my seat. Not even Michael Phelps. Will the athletics will do it for me? Everything is so sanitised, so perfect. I realise now that I feed off the exitement generated by the intensity of the crowds, the uncertainty, the ecstacy, the hope, the pain in the faces... but this is faceless fare. Fear is the norm and enjoyment is programmed. This is not Westworld but Eastworld without Yul Brynner. How different to Sydney 2000. Poles apart in culture and attitudes. A people on the inside looking out. I hope knowledge of what life can offer doesn't turn to envy and later to something more destructive. We have seen it first hand in the Middle East.

    Can London 2012 rescue me? I am sure that the venues will be full and millions of visitors will flood in. The exitement of the crowds will overflow from the venues and stadiums into the streets. It will be party time. But will we be able to accomodate millions of visitors and competitors who will not want to stay at the Olympic village or inconvenient and overpriced hotels? As in Sydney 2000 homeowners around the 2012 Olympic venues are being asked to provide affordable accomodation where they can. In fact they can make a small fortune by letting out private accomodation emulating Wimbledon residents and those around Newport who expect to do very nicely during the 2010 Ryder Cup.
    Beijing has shown that we need the crowds. We must be ready.

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  • 28. At 09:16am on 18 Aug 2008, rfreeland wrote:

    A quick comment and observation of the Olympic games. I have enjoyed watching with amazment the sheer athleticism involved in the games. However, I became suspicious when Bolt won the 100m beating his previous world record by 3/100th second. I watched his previous world record run of 9.72 on 31 May 2008 and if you compare both attempts, he appears to slow in his 9.69 run whereas he is flat out in his 9.72 run. Ask a sprinter how difficult it is to shave even 1/100th of a second off the 100m and they will tell you he did not run that in 9.69 - just watch the video of both runs to put that quetion in your mind. I also think that the media have been duped into believing that the number of world record being set even in swimming, where 2 to 4s off the previous world record seems to be the norm, has been played down to the pool and kit the athletes are wearing. A more likely story is that the Chinese are using the Olympics as a platform for their own propaganda: being the best means something, even in hosting the games. This is not as far fetched as you might think - look what happened at the opening of the games: it wasn't that trickery was used to give the opening perfection, but that we were duped into believing that the perfection was not down to any tricks. I wonder if anyone will check more closely at these games, for the athletes sake, since no-one will say anything until after they are over due to the hordes of cash the games rake in for those who have interests in them.

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