- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

ATHENS — In the Olympic tennis stadium, Venus Williams’ grunts echoed loudly off several thousand empty seats. There were so few people at the gymnastics preliminaries that it looked like a high-school meet.

Across Athens, on the opening weekend of the Olympics, the scene was the same: Wrestlers grappled in front of only a few hundred fans, archers had the old Olympic stadium nearly to themselves, and softball was played before a backdrop of empty stands.

So far, the Olympics is a box-office bust.

“I watched it on TV, and when you looked in the background, you were like, ‘Wow, it’s the Olympics, and nobody is there,’ ” said Bart Conner, a gymnast who won two gold medals at the Los Angeles Games in 1984.

Athens organizers, in their rush to finish building some of the sparkling new venues, apparently didn’t work as hard trying to fill them. And Greeks are proving to be selective about what they will pay to watch, despite ticket prices of as little as $11 a seat for some preliminary competitions.

That has led to some embarrassing scenes, such as yesterday when Williams played in front of only about 500 fans on center court in the Olympic tennis complex. It was so quiet that the first shout of “Come on, Venus” from the stands — a constant cry when she plays at big tournaments — came in the next-to-last game of the match.

At gymnastics, huge sections of seats were unoccupied while the women competed, a fact Greek state television duly noted.

“This must be the first time there is an Olympic gymnastics event that didn’t have a full arena,” a commentator said.

Organizers say it’s too early to judge the games by a few empty arenas. They said they have sold more than 2.9 million tickets out of 5.3 million. The goal is to sell 3.4 million tickets, and Athens 2004 spokesman Michael Zacharatos predicted sales will increase as the events become “more exciting.”

In Sydney four years ago, organizers said they sold 92 percent of the 5.7 million tickets.

“We are confident that Greeks … will flow to the stadiums, as well as international visitors,” Mr. Zacharatos said.

Still, organizers launched a national television campaign yesterday to boost sales.

“It’s more to inform people about specific sports,” Mr. Zacharatos said.

In a poll last month, only one in five Greeks said they planned to buy tickets. Worries over whether the Olympics would be safe and the venues finished also apparently cut into tourist sales, with American ticket agents saying they ordered 30 percent fewer tickets than they did for the Sydney Games.

Although the official Athens 2004 Web site urges fans to buy tickets early because “they are already hard to find,” a few more clicks show that tickets were available for every sport today except sailing and the evening swimming events.

To be sure, there were some full houses yesterday, even on a major religious holiday in Greece.

Swimming — with its tight races, gold medals and world records — was sold out — in stark contrast to daytime tennis matches.

Basketball drew a big crowd for Argentina against Serbia and Montenegro, as did a marquee match in water polo between defending Olympic champion Hungary and Serbia and Montenegro.

More common, though, were the scenes at the Cuba-Australia baseball game, where only 1,549 fans made their way to the 8,700-seat stadium. At the Paraguay-Ghana soccer match in Thessaloniki, no one was sitting on the far side or in the end zones.

At the Japan-Italy game in Volos about 200 miles north of Athens, barely 5,000 fans were in the stadium, and there were almost as many Japanese fans as locals.

“With all the interest that’s followed Greece winning the European Championship, I’m surprised that there haven’t been more people at the Games,” said Sepp Blatter, president of the international soccer federation, who attended one. “But it’s the same at many other events at the Olympics. I saw a rowing event where you could have had time to shake hands with all the spectators.”

Indeed, at the new Nikaia Olympic weightlifting hall, there were more volunteers and officials than paying spectators for the early sessions. But arena official Christos Gkalis said that would change next week when Greeks Pyrros Dimas and Kakhi Kakiasvilis go for their fourth consecutive gold medals.

“Wait until the 21st, and all of Greece will be here,” he said.

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