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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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