Organizers Struggle to Solve London Olympic Ticketing Fiasco

Rows of empty seats at events are one of many indications of London's Olympic fiascoes

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Saurabh Das / AP

Spectators watch a mixed doubles match between Britain and China in a sparsely-populated stadium during badminton at the 2012 Summer Olympics, July 31, 2012.

As if rows of empty seats at events that were said to be sold out weren’t embarrassing enough for the organizers of the London Olympics, French President Francois Hollande had to rub it in his hosts’ faces during a visit on Monday. “The problem is that there are simply too many corporate seats,” he said. A French Olympics, he said, “would be interested in gold, not money.”

Perhaps Hollande is a graceless winner; French swimmers have been dominant in the pool and the country is third in the medal count. Or a sore loser; Paris had been the favorite candidate city to host the 2012 Games, but was beaten by London in the final round of voting. Paris had previously lost out to Beijing in a bid to host the 2008 Games.

(READ: French Swimmers Stage Early, Unexpected Grab of Olympic Gold)

Whatever the case, he was careful to avoid alienating the Brits quite as much as U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who described some of the preparations for the Games as “disconcerting” shortly before he visited London last week. “The London Olympics have been very well organized,” Hollande said. “I’m not here to be a killjoy or to give lessons to the British. It’s not worthy of France.”

But the controversy continues, Gallic provocation or not. Lord Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, has urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take responsibility for organizing ticketing in future Games, to prevent a repeat of this year’s seating fiasco. He told the Financial Times: “The IOC have now got to take a lead and make sure that investment is in place for a state of the art Olympic ticketing program that can then be improved…from Games to Games.”

Television coverage has repeatedly revealed, much to the dismay of fans who failed to obtain tickets, some venues to be only partially full. Members of the British military, who only weeks ago had stepped in when security firm G4S failed to provide sufficient numbers of security staff, were again drafted in—this time to make up the numbers in the stands, alongside teachers and schoolchildren. During the women’s gymnastics team qualifying, for example, dozens of uniformed men sat bunched together in some of the best seats in the house.

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A survey by the Daily Telegraph found that over 12,000 seats, most of which had been reserved for the “Olympic family”—in other words, accredited media, IOC official and sponsors—have remained unfilled. (This figure did not include football stadiums, where some matches saw up to tens of thousands of empty seats.)

LOCOG, the organizing committee for the London Games, revealed on Monday that that it had reclaimed 3,000 unused tickets that had been returned by sports federations, which they then sold to the public overnight. The organizers also plan to meet with the IOC and sporting federations each evening of the Games to determine what blocks of tickets can go back on sale.

Jackie Brock-Doyle, a spokesman for LOCOG, said: “We are doing this session by session, talking to the accredited groups including obviously broadcast media and everybody else, and asking whether we can release for the different sessions tickets back into the public pot.”

While LOCOG will request that accredited groups return unused tickets, those ticket-holders will not be forced to do so. The IOC also plans to give up seats in accredited areas where possible.

Nonetheless, there are persisting complaints over the difficulties of actually purchasing a ticket. The online transaction system has been criticized as complicated and time-consuming, taking up to two hours to complete. The most common complaint has been of tickets for certain events being shown as available, but when customers attempted to purchase them, they were unable to make a transaction, and the tickets seemingly vanished.

Frustration over the Olympic ticketing system has also spread to the parents of competitors, some of whom have been refused entry to watch their children perform in a number of venues, including the aquatics center, Wimbledon and the rowing center at Eton Dorney, even though plenty of seats were available. Every athlete is entitled to two tickets for relatives and friends for the events they compete in. However, they must go through the Ticketmaster ticket system used by LOCOG, which was not updated to allow competing athletes to obtain tickets for their loved ones in time for the final of some events.