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Why all those empty seats at Rio Games? Plenty of reasons

Published:Friday | August 19, 2016 | 9:49 AM
Spectators surrounded by empty seats watch a men's beach volleyball match between Canada and Latvia at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


The taekwondo competition at the Rio Games last Thursday morning was sold out. Not a single seat was left for grabs at the 10,000-capacity arena, where fans spent between US$21 and US$43 to gain access.

But the arena never totally filled.

The crowds, or lack thereof, will unquestionably be part of the legacy of these first Olympics in South America, where some events were raucous and others seemed downright sleepy.

Despite organisers insisting that most tickets were sold, it wasn't uncommon to see Usain Bolt running in an arena that had perhaps more empty blue chairs than fans - even after he took to Twitter with a video urging people to buy tickets.

When US 1,500-metre runner Jenny Simpson won bronze last week, the track stadium was maybe 25 per cent filled. She noticed, but insisted it didn't take away from her moment.

"The physical crowd that is there never compares to the people that you took along the journey with you, and they're watching through their television screens and certainly now the Internet," Simpson said. "So the physical presence doesn't excite or deter."


Rio Games officials insist that more than 80 per cent of all available tickets were sold, and that their goals on that front will be met. But that stat hasn't passed the eye test throughout the games, and an Associated Press review last Thursday afternoon showed roughly half - including the closing ceremony, the women's soccer gold-medal match and all remaining sessions in track and field - had tickets remaining.

"I got tickets for wrestling because they were the lowest price," said Luiz Hernandez, a Colombian who was with friends inside Olympic Park this week. "We got them to come in here and hang out. We wound up giving them away because we just wanted to be in here."

There's been no shortage of theories - or excuses, depending on perspective - about the empty seats in Rio. Some events start too early, others start too late. Some tickets were too expensive. Too many sports seemed foreign to Brazilians.


Blocks of seats ordinarily set aside for international fans either weren't sold or claimed. Traffic scared away locals. Would-be visitors were scared away by pre-Olympic stories of disease, dirty water and crime.

They're probably all valid factors, on some level.

Combine that with how Rio organisers say 11 per cent of the advance-purchased tickets - and 55 per cent of the tickets given out for free to needy kids in the Rio area - weren't used, and it's easy to see how the crowd issue became an issue.

"I don't want to go too long into this because it might sound as an excuse," Rio Games spokesman Mario Andrada said. "I believe we faced this issue without looking for excuses, but rather looking for explanations."

But Andrada said the games broke the financial target for sales even while the attendance numbers lagged, something he attributed to high-priced tickets getting sold early to marquee events.

"Numbers mislead," Andrada said.