Soldiers fill empty Olympic seats

9:37 AM, Jul 30, 2012   |    comments
Empty seats and spectators are pictured during in the dressage event of the equestrian eventing competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games in Greenwich Park, London, on July 29, 2012. (CARL COURT/AFP/GettyImages)
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LONDON -- British soldiers will be asked to act as temporary placeholders in premium seating at Olympic events, as organizers attempt to avoid the spectacle of empty seats at venues.

The approach of filling venues with soldiers -- initially brought in to provide security at the Olympics following issues with a contractor -- began after accredited seating allocated to officials, athletes, sponsors and media went unused for stretches of the first weekend of competition.

A spokeswoman for the London organizing committee said Sunday it had begun offering empty seats in accredited areas to soldiers who had finished their security shifts, but remained on the grounds.

"If they want to sit there and watch, they can," said Sebastian Coe, chairman of the organizing committee. "It's not mobilizing the army to solve this."

Organizers promised to take urgent action the issue in response to embarrassing images of empty seats at swimming, gymnastics, tennis, volleyball and dressage events.

Fans had expressed anger that the seats were going unused when members of the public had missed out.

Organizers planned to place members of the public in the unused "accredited seats," which typically had some of the best views of the action, through a variety of approaches, said the spokeswoman. Tickets would be released for sale to the public where possible, as they had been in the case of 1,000 gymnastics tickets which had been offered and sold overnight.

Some would be filled with students from London schools, who were already on the Olympic Park, through an initiative known as the Key Seats program, while others would be given as "upgrades" to members of the public in poorer seats.

Organizers are also implementing a Wimbledon-style scheme to recycle tickets at hockey, basketball, handball and water polo double-bills, where some fans have been leaving after watching their team. On the first day of competition, about 300 handball tickets were re-sold to people already at the Olympic Park.

Coe insisted the venues were "stuffed to the gunnels" with fans, and suggested empty seats were to be expected in the early stages of the competition "as people are figuring out how and where they're going to spend their time."

"Let's not run away with ourselves here," he told reporters. "This is a moveable situation, it will resolve itself quite quickly."

He said it was not unusual for members of official delegations to have heavy commitments.

"My day yesterday is a good example -- I went to about four venues and only stayed for about an hour in each one."

Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, said full venues were important for athletes and fans, and suggested implementing a "30-minute rule" whereby seats would be forfeited if left vacant. "I just want to see absolutely every seat filled," he said.

"We owe it to the British sporting public to give them an opportunity to attend one of the most historic sporting events of their lives."

But Coe said he believed the organizer's response was more proportionate.

The empty seats provoked a range of responses from dismay to anger on social media. Twitter user @stevegtennis posted a picture of a block of empty seats at Wimbledon with the message: "Sorry to report there are loads of empty seats at the #Olympics tennis. Outrage. Please RT (re-tweet) in protest."

Another user, @marksregard, complained: "All those empty seats...and I know folks that tried for months to get tickets and were unsuccessful."

Reports that Olympic sponsors were to blame for the empty seats prompted a number of official sponsors, including GE, Visa, P&G and Coca Cola to issue statements that they were using their allocations responsibly.

But organizers said the sponsors were not to blame for leaving seats empty. "Sponsors are turning up," said Coe.

Earlier, British culture secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC the empty seats were "very disappointing" and promised organizers were "going to do everything we can to make sure we fill up these stadia."

"If they're not going to turn up, we want those tickets to be available for members of the public, because that creates the best atmosphere," he said.

"I was at the Beijing Games, in 2008... and one of the lessons that we took away from that, is that full stadia create the best atmosphere. It's best for the athletes, it's more fun for the spectators, it's been an absolute priority."


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