Olympic drama, but no chorus

Officials hope the empty spectator seats fill soon, overcoming provincialism and terror fears.

Five days after the Olympics returned to the home that was so desperate to receive them, a peaceful and promising beginning has been marred by one ever-present image: empty seats.

Across many of the sports and venues, the Games have been met not with a roar, but with the uncomfortable echo of indifference. Bleacher bums at marquee gymnastics events have been herded into premium seats to make stadiums look fuller on TV. The crowd at Venus Williams's first-round tennis match was estimated at 500.

To be sure, it has always been difficult to fill arenas during the first days of the Olympics, when stakes can be low. But the challenges in Athens are altogether more daunting. Many foreigners have stayed home, frightened off by terror fears, and among those Athenians who have not fled the city for the summer, there is an overwhelming ambivalence about any event that does not involve the home team.

The result is an unmistakable diminution of the drama, as the grandest event in world sport is seemingly orphaned in the country that established it. "I'll watch football [soccer] and basketball, but most of those other sports I don't care about - neither does anyone else in Greece," says Alexos Surlas, a taxi driver. "I've never even heard of some of them."

Yet by the numbers, things don't seem to be going too badly. The Athens Organizing Committee (ATHOC) says ticket sales are rising at a rate of 78,000 a day. According to the most recent figures, it has now sold more tickets than either the Seoul or Barcelona Games.

Yet these Olympics have more events than either of those two, so there are more seats to fill. Moreover, the issue goes beyond ticket sales to whether the seats are actually filled: No-shows of course make no noise.

Undoubtedly, the vast tracts of unpopulated grandstands will fill as events move toward their medal rounds and as track and field opens the centerpiece Olympic Stadium. But ATHOC seems content to wait for that moment and hope.

The no-shows "are something we have no control over," said organizer Marton Simitsek at a press conference Tuesday. By contrast, when blocks of corporate seats went unfilled in Seoul in 1988, the organizing committee managed to essentially take the seats back and donate them to local children.

Demirtzis Kosmas, for one, wouldn't want one. "Who knows anything about these sports like softball or baseball?" asks the shopkeeper. "The only sport Greeks are interested in is football, and then only if the national team is playing."

In fact, Greeks have shown an interest in softball and baseball - as well as every other sport - as long as the national team is playing. And support for the home team is nothing new.

But rarely has it contrasted so obviously with meager support for the rest of the Games. While there wasn't a seat to be found at a preliminary round water-polo match between Greece and Kazakhstan Monday night, the entire two upper tiers were empty at the men's team gymnastics final across the street. The same day, a baseball game between Greece and Cuba sold out, while an earlier game between Canada and Italy sold only 18 percent of its tickets. So far, only the swimming venue has been consistently full no matter who is competing.

Part of the problem can be attributed to the lack of foreign visitors. Greek officials estimate that tourism is down 12 percent from last year. Mr. Kosmas sees it in his shop. "They told us to expect thousands of foreigners. Where are they? You don't see them in stadiums. I don't see them in my shop!"

Terror concerns kept some at home. An ill-conceived decision by many Athens hoteliers to artificially jack up prices by more than 500 percent chased off even more. Add to that the fact that August is the month that most Athenians leave the city - and that Greece is already the smallest country to hold the Olympics in 52 years - and there simply aren't that many people left to sit in stadium seats.

Alfred Katrona could feel it when he went to a women's volleyball session earlier in the week. "The attendance was very poor," says Mr. Katrona, who has come here with his wife from England. While he praises the job that organizers have done putting on the Games - and the friendly atmosphere that the volunteers have created - he acknowledges: "There was not a lively crowd to cheer up the teams."

Others, however, see it merely as beginning of a natural crescendo that will peak next week. "It's building a bit," says Murray De Jong, who is here from Australia to watch the swimming. "Definitely more people are coming, and that makes for a better atmosphere."

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