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Sochi Day 4: Where are the Spectators?


We can add one more question to all those already being asked about Sochi’s Olympics like, “why did it cost so much?”, and “where did all that money go?”,

Where are all the spectators?

Photographs of the Games reveal sparse crowds at the events. Even some senior Olympic figures have “complained about the lack of buzz.”

We can rule out the weather as the reason spectators are steering clear. Temperatures in Sochi will reach a balmy 15 degrees Celsius (60 Fahrenheit) this week, with mostly clear skies. Sounds like just the place to escape to ditch those winter blues.

Of course, the lack of crowds is not an isolated event. And we should not be too quick to blame Sochi’s organizers for doing something wrong. This is just par for the course for the Olympics.

Less than two short years ago, the British army was called in to help out with the London Olympics. This was a not a response to any terrorist threat, but rather to fill the seats to make it look better attended than it was.

Sochi might have low attendance because it is a small city well off the beaten track. But what of London? It has a metropolitan area of over 15 million people. Serviced by three airports, it is perhaps the easiest city to travel to in the world.

The last Winter Olympics in Vancouver fared no better. Seats set aside of the athletes’ families, media and even Olympic officials went unfilled. This unfortunate lack of attendees left the organizers scrambling to find ways to reduce “irritating sight of empty seats”. Not even the guests of honour could be bothered to show up on time!

Surely the Beijing Olympics had no problem gathering a crowd. After all, a full 20 percent of the inhabitants of this Earth live in China.

Guess again. Even with the population figures on its side, events in Beijing exuded a feeling of loneliness. The solution was to fill the stands with locals: “[S]quads of factory workers dressed in yellow jackets and shirts were bussed from venue to venue to fill thousands of empty seats and told to cheer.”

Care for an Italian holiday? The beautiful Italian countryside is the fifth most heavily touristed country in the world. Each year two tourists walk the streets of Rome for every three Italian citizens in the whole country! (The United States, which comes second only to France in terms of gross number of tourists each year, sees only about one tourist arrival for every five American citizens.)

Apparently people the world over love visiting Italy, but not during the Turin Olympics in 2006. Athletes were disappointed at the half-filled venues providing only lackluster cheering and low energy levels.

Senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound tried to be upbeat about those games:

I’m very impressed. All the crowds I’ve seen are very enthusiastic. It’s not the first time every seat hasn’t been sold at the Winter Olympics.

It also wouldn’t be the last.

I’m sure these comments were reassuring to the Italians who forked out nearly 2 billion euros to construct 65 new sporting facilities and apartments for the athletes. If they couldn’t even draw fans to enjoy them when the big games were in town, I’m sure they are not exactly overflowing with spectators now.

The 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens marked the return to the birthplace of the Games. Per capita, Greece is one of the most touristed nations in the world. Each year it receives about 1.5 tourists for every citizen. One would have thought that this fact coupled with the momentous return of the Games to its home should be a recipe for success.

Wrong again. The rows of empty seats created an “empty feeling” in the grandiose stadiums built for the momentous occasion.

It seems like empty seats are a recurring theme during the Olympics. Sochi is not unusual in this regard but is rather completely normal!

Besides the fact that the Organizers bill the Olympics to be a more significant event than the number of attendees would suggest, this might not be a big problem. Except for that little problem of paying for it all.

With all the new facilities that need to be built for thousands of athletes who stick around for a couple of weeks, the expense of the Olympics has been steadily climbing. Someone needs to pay for this. Almost no domestic citizens show up to watch the Games in their home country, but these same citizens are the ones who foot the bill for the big event.

Besides being a show of fair play and sportsmanship, it is this display of selfless generosity by host countries to pay so much to entertain the few guests who show up that might be the most striking aspect of any Olympics.

If it were explained to them in this way, though, I’m not so sure they would be happy with their generosity, which goes far in explaining why the Olympics are funded through taxes and public debt rather than paying for it just by charging admissions to the people who actually show up to enjoy it (like is the case with almost all other sporting events).

(Originally posted at Mises Canada) Photo Credit: Roy Cheung

David Howden is Chair of the Department of Business and Economics and professor of economics at St. Louis University's Madrid Campus, and Academic Vice President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada.

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