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COLUMNISTS

Wed, August 18, 2004

Empty seats, empty feeling


Marc Ramsay stood on the floor of the Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall, looked up to the stands and shook his head in disappointment.

"This reminds me of a regional meet in Quebec," said Ramsay, one of Canada's boxing coaches. "Only in Quebec, we get more people. I never thought you would see this at an Olympic Games."

"This" is a hundred or so people. Give or take another hundred. Give or take a venue.

Some of them fans. Many of them friends or family. Many of them officials, paid or volunteer.

The crowd at boxing, the crowd at baseball, the crowd at softball, the crowd at shooting, the crowd at fencing: It doesn't seem to matter or change.

Between innings yesterday, Andy Stewart, the backup catcher on the unbeaten Canadian baseball team, popped his head out of the dugout and waved to the seats.

"I was looking for my wife and counting the people," he said. "After I got to one, I didn't have to go a lot higher."

BETTER FOR TV

The night before at gymnastics, one of the franchise sports of any Summer Olympics, the usherettes in the upper section of the spanking new Olympic Indoor Hall had to quietly urge people to move down to the empty seats in the lower bowl. They had to, they explained, make it look better for television.

What if you had an Olympic Games and almost nobody came?

That question was pondered over and over again before the Athens Olympics began and now it is being answered in nearly every stadium in and around this city of history.

On television, from your homes, this may sound and look and feel like the Olympics. The athletes are still the athletes. The events are still the events. The competition and suspense remains world class. The stories grab you and pull you in like nothing else can.

But from here, up close, without the editing of cameras and without the choice of production shots, these seem like a Games without buzz.

The signs say "Welcome Home" but this doesn't feel at all like home. Most of the venues are spectacular -- both the old and the new -- and you know just how spectacular they are because so many of them are close to empty.

So many athletes, especially those new to the Games, have this earnest look about them, their eyes asking "Where are the people?"

There have been some exceptional crowds -- for the opening ceremony, for swimming, for tennis, even for a Greek baseball team that is comprised of Americans and Canadians, and almost certainly for track and field when it begins -- but the majority of the venues seem vacant and pristine.

"We are happy to announce that so far we have done an excellent job," said Marton Simitsek, the chief operating officer of the organizing committee, which is nice of him top say. Simitsek claims they have sold more than three million tickets, more than Barcelona in 1992 or Seoul in 1988. The tickets may in fact be sold but the seats are empty.

This is the 10th time I've had the opportunity to cover an Olympic Games and each time the flavour is different, the mood, the feel, all of it. Sydney, the previous summer Games, seemed a celebration for young children and families. In Australia, they didn't cheer for themselves, they cheered for the world. In Atlanta, the Games were corporate and dysfunctional.

Logistically, these Games, after so much concern, are working out stunningly well. Possibly for two very good reasons: One, the crowds are minuscule; two, the highways are basically abandoned.

The organizing committee claims it has reached 99% of its target in terms of ticket sales.

That may well be so.

But where are the people?

If it weren't for parents and friends and fellow athletes, Canadians would be competing here in front of no one.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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