Blame can be liberally spread
It’s actually a relief that ticketing is one of the burning issues; all the negative commentary beforehand suggested far more dire problems in store, but organizationally things have gone more smoothly this first week than even optimists assumed. Even so, for outsiders watching, it is somehow proof that Greeks are not interested. But that’s painting with a very broad brush. The blame, if that is what is required, could be spread liberally. Many Greeks are off on their customary August holiday, as was expected (indeed planned for) right from the word go. Take the cycling road race last weekend: It was shrewdly set for the first two days of competition, to show off Athens to the world, but this also took advantage of the summer’s biggest holiday weekend of August 15. Many Athenians were fearful of (widely but erroneously predicted) city chaos during the Games and opted to leave based on the fear factor alone. Many of those who remained had no choice, whether due to their own work or that of family members. And many will be returning to the capital soon, while many others have embraced the Games. Divergent attendance The reality is not across-the-board low turnout, but rather highly divergent attendance that reflects factors like whether Greek hopes are competing, the popularity of the sport, the round (preliminary or medal), and accessibility. Another problem is perspective: A lot of TV camera positions are immovable, and many unfortunately point toward end-zone seats (which sell last) rather than the more popular middle sections. But how do you tell listeners back home that what they’re seeing isn’t fully accurate? One venue, the Panathenaic Stadium downtown, was an inspired venue for any sport at all, and archery was the lucky winner. Yet the stadium’s cavernous size (around 50,000 capacity) makes for an odd pairing with a sport focusing on individuals standing stock-still, shooting an arrow at a target that you can’t really see from most seats. It is no surprise that it has drawn few, which appear even fewer in contrast. Yet on Tuesday morning, the small crowd was vocal, appreciative and supportive of Greece’s remaining medal hopeful, Evangelia Psarra, who with cool precision took out her Turkish opponent – sealing the victory with a bull’s-eye in her last (of 18) arrows – and they were back the next day to see her defeat her Spanish round-of-16 opponent in the morning session before succumbing to the eventual gold medalist in the afternoon quarterfinals. That evening brought a totally different spectator experience, the 8,000-seat center court at the refurbished Olympic complex, with its bright night lighting, enclosed and intimate feel, and appealing blue courts. It helped that Greece’s chief medal hopeful, Eleni Daniilidou, was in the evening’s final featured match. Capacity was at least at three-fourths but sounded like double that, groaning in unison as the 21-year-old Greek fell to the ground in pain, clutching her thigh, while leading Magdalena Maleeva in the third set. In an electrified ending, she fought back to win, earning a standing ovation. The crowds were back on Wednesday, as the player, sufficiently recovered, fought gamely but lost in straight sets to the French Open champion, Anastasia Myskina. On adjacent Court No. 1, most of the seats were still full for a men’s doubles match featuring Chileans vs Americans – by no means a glamour event. Tennis doubles provide terrific, but underappreciated, entertainment not limited to aficionados. Many were partisans cheering their own, but again the crowd was active and appreciative. ‘Glamour sports’ The swimming complex offers one of the most intimate settings of all the «glamour» Olympic sports, and consequently is the easiest sell. Even accredited journalists have a hard time securing a ticket to the relatively brief evening sessions. Wednesday night was typical, and typically outstanding, featuring some of the great swimmers of our time, if not all time – Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, Inge de Bruijn, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Natalie Coughlin, Hui Qi, Amanda Beard, Kosuke Kitajima. Two freestyle world records were set, one individually (by Jodie Henry in the women’s 100 free) and one by the US relay team. The stands were packed, bar a few empty ones in the high corners, and again vocal, with flags being waved and Mexican waves being sent around the arena. Even the Chinese relay team was smiling at the festive crowd. If the Games were only about swimming and track and field, venues would fill each night and all would be satisfied. But the 28 Olympic sports include those with little wider following and which consequently need a marketing effort (and a break from commentators) that has not always been forthcoming. Even during the first days, 20 or more sports were going more or less simultaneously. Too much choice is not always a good thing. Under the circumstances, turnout hasn’t been bad, while spectator appreciation, a less tangible element, has been better than many expected. And with track and field starting today and many medal events coming up, any problems are likely to diminish. At any rate, we’re fortunate to be able to fret about it at all.