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Some seats go empty at the London Olympics

July 30, 2012 | 12:55 pm

LONDON -- First they were called up to help provide security for the Games. Now Olympic organizers want to draft British troops to play another role: as seat fillers.

Embarrassed officials scrambled Monday to explain why hundreds of seats at various Olympic venues, including for marquee events such as gymnastics, swimming and beach volleyball, were empty during the opening days of the 2012 Games, even as members of the public complained about being shut out from acquiring tickets.

Organizers said many of the unused seats belonged to corporate sponsors, media outlets and national sports federations, which were still mapping out which events to attend from the smorgasbord on offer. Officials promised to monitor the situation and release more tickets if certain reserved sections remained empty; a batch of 3,000 were put up for sale Sunday night.

“It’s not an exact science here,” Jackie Brock-Doyle, a spokeswoman for the Olympic organizing committee, said Monday. “We have done a lot to reclaim [seats] where we can.”

Sebastian Coe, the head of the committee, said that some of the empty places could be given to off-duty soldiers among the more than 18,000 troops deployed by the British government to protect the Games. Servicemen and women in fatigues and berets could be seen enjoying the action in the gymnastics arena and on Center Court at Wimbledon.

But the sight of rows of unoccupied seats, caught on TV cameras and in photographs tweeted by angry spectators, was the latest in a series of fumbles over ticketing that have dismayed Olympic organizers and outraged would-be attendees. From the beginning, frustrated buyers have fumed over exorbitant prices, glitches in the online ticketing system and the number of slots set aside for corporate sponsors, officials and the media.

Brock-Doyle said the London Games have 15% fewer such reserved seats than previous Olympics. Organizers are also trying to persuade the International Olympic Committee and the various national sports bodies to give up some of their unused seats.

“What we’re saying to the IOC and to the international sports federations is if you’re not going to use them, could we have as many as possible back because of course we’ve got lots of members of the public who would dearly love to go,” Jeremy Hunt, the government’s minister for sport, told BBC radio Monday morning.

However, Hunt added, “this is a negotiation. We don’t have a right to demand these back.”

Calling the situation a “fiasco,” the Evening Standard newspaper wrote in an acerbic front-page headline Monday afternoon: “Now we can buy empty VIP seats.” Other news outlets poured scorn on Coe’s declaration that the Olympic venues were “stuffed to the gunwales.”

Officials note that tens of thousands of regular tickets still remain available for purchase online, although many are for soccer matches taking place at stadiums far outside London.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the absenteeism was “disappointing” but not unique to these Summer Games. Four years ago in Beijing, thousands of seats were left unoccupied, prompting Chinese officials to truck in people to try to fill them.

In the British capital, 150 schoolchildren and teachers are on tap to act as seat fillers in the Olympic Park, site of several large venues, including those for swimming and athletics, Brock-Doyle said. That number could now be increased to about 400.

Yvette Cooper, a lawmaker from the opposition Labor Party, called for unused tickets to be made available to police officers and their families.

“Many officers have told me they would not be able to take up tickets because of the shifts and cover they need to provide for the Olympics,” Cooper said, “but they would love their families, who are also making sacrifices this summer, to have the chance.”


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Photo: British soldiers watch gymnast Simona Castro Lazo from Chile perform during the Artistic Gymnastics women's qualification at the 2012 Summer Olympics on Sunday in London. Troops, teachers and students are getting free tickets to fill prime seats that were empty at some Olympic venues on the first full day of competition. Credit: Gregory Bull / Associated Press.