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Athens struggles to fill stadiums

• Olympics 2004: Special report 
Olympics 2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Athens 2004 may have seen some world records tumble in the sporting arena but so far records are not broken when it comes to box office sales.

In fact, Greek organizers have so far only sold 2.9 million tickets out of a total of 5.3 million a stark contrast to the Sydney Games, when 92% of all tickets were sold.

However organizers firmly denied reports that they would be giving out free tickets to fill embarrassing gaps that show up so starkly in global television coverage.

Bombarded with questions at the daily briefing about ticket sales, Games spokesman Michael Zacharatos told reporters: "We are confident that today we will break the three million mark."

"Yesterday ticket sales versus net capacity was at 56 percent," he added. "We will not be giving out tickets and there will be no discounted tickets sold. That's a policy that is only fair to the people who have bought 2.9 million tickets so far."

He was at pains to point out that ticket sales at Barcelona in 1992 reached 3.21 million and just 2.7 million in Seoul in 1988.

In the Olympic tennis stadium, Venus Williams' grunts echoed loudly off several thousand empty seats.

There were so few people at the gymnastics preliminaries that it looked like a high school meet.

Across Athens, on the opening weekend of the Olympics, the scene was the same: Wrestlers grappled in front of only a few hundred fans, archers had the old Olympic stadium nearly to themselves and softball was played before a backdrop of empty stands.

"I watched it on TV and when you looked in the background, you were like, `Wow, it's the Olympics and nobody is there,"' former gymnast Bart Conner said.

Athens organizers, in their rush to finish building some of the sparkling new venues, apparently didn't work as hard trying to fill them. And Greeks are proving to be selective about what they'll pay money to watch, despite ticket prices of as little as $11 a seat for some preliminary competitions.

That's led to some embarrassing scenes, such as Sunday when Williams played in front of only about 500 fans on center court in the Olympic tennis complex. It was so quiet that the first shout of "Come on, Venus!" from the stands -- a constant cry when she plays at big tournaments -- came in the next-to-last game of the match.

Empty seats

At gymnastics, huge sections of seats had no one in them while the women competed, a fact Greek state television duly noted.

"This must be the first time there is an Olympic gymnastics event that didn't have a full arena," a commentator said.

Organizers say it's too early to judge the games by a few empty arenas. Their goal is to sell 3.4 million tickets, and Athens 2004 spokesman Michael Zacharatos predicted sales will increase as the games become "more exciting."

"We are confident that Greeks ... will flow to the stadiums, as well as international visitors," Zacharatos said.

Still, organizers launched a national television campaign on Sunday to boost sales.

"It's more to inform people about specific sports," Zacharatos said.

In a poll last month, only one in five Greeks said they planned to buy tickets. Worries over whether the Olympics would be safe and the venues finished also apparently cut into tourist sales, with American ticket agents saying they ordered 30 percent less tickets than Sydney.

Though the official Athens 2004 Web site urges fans to buy tickets early because "they are already hard to find," a few more clicks shows that tickets were available for every sport on Monday except sailing and the evening swimming events.

To be sure, there were some full houses Sunday, even on a major religious holiday in Greece.

Swimming, with tight races, gold medals and world records, were sellouts -- in stark contrast to daytime tennis matches.

"You have to understand -- people see tennis a lot," Andy Roddick said. "If it's a choice between that or swimming at the Olympics, people possibly go to swimming."

Basketball drew a big crowd for Argentina against Serbia-Montenegro, and so did a marquee match in water polo between defending Olympic champion Hungary and Serbia-Montenegro.

More common, though, were the scenes at the Cuba-Australia baseball game, where only 1,549 fans made their way to the 8,700-seat stadium. At the Paraguay-Ghana soccer match in Thessaloniki, no one was sitting on the far side or in the end zones.

At the Japan-Italy game in Volos about 200 miles north of Athens, barely 5,000 fans were in the stadium, and there were almost as many Japanese fans as locals.

"With all the interest that's followed Greece winning the European Championship, I'm surprised that there haven't been more people at the games," said FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who attended one. "But it's the same at many other events at the Olympics. I saw a rowing event where you could have had time to shake hands with all the spectators."

Indeed, at the new Nikaia Olympic weightlifting hall there were more volunteers and officials than paying spectators for the early sessions. But arena official Christos Gkalis said that would change next week when Greeks Pyrros Dimas and Kakhi Kakiasvilis go for their fourth consecutive gold medals.

"Wait until the 21st and all of Greece will be here," he said.

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