There is something very British about the obsession (which I confess to sharing) with empty seats at big events. I am not aware of any other country where ‘you couldn’t sell all your tickets’ is a popular football chant insult.
But unless the empty seats problem is solved soon, it is an insult likely to spoil the otherwise wonderful start to London 2012.
In part, we are back to our old friend unintended consequences. Despite the scandal of MPs’ expenses, we are one of the least corrupt countries in the world, but we have to do business with other less stringent nations and the Bribery Act was in part about ensuring high standards at home in the hope of driving them up overseas.
Where the unintended consequences come in is in the fear of many that accepting freebies from corporates may infringe bribery laws in one country or another. I know of one sponsor which has been sitting of a vast pile of tickets for weeks, working through a long list of people they cannot be given to according to the strictest interpretation of laws.
To the real sports fan who spent hours being told by websites that event after event was sold out, these legalistic technicalities will be of little comfort. And they are likely to be angered somewhat by the other factor at play here – VIPs, corporate sponsors and others who don’t really care about the empty seats problem so long as they can get to all the action, sporting and other, they want to.
But it should matter to the IOC, to Locog, and to the government. And that means urgently facing up to the most common logistical event management problem of all time – bums on seats.
If we go to the theatre, we accept that if we arrive late, we can’t get in until a moment convenient to those who bothered to arrive on time. Give Olympic ticket holders half an hour from the start of the event. If the seat is unclaimed, sell at reduced price to those queueing at the ticket office, or give to off duty volunteers and security staff.
Of course some people, not least those on sponsors’ packages, have tickets for more than one event at the same time. The authorities should make it simple for those tickets to be returned and resold.
People know that with so much going on across so many venues and sporting disciplines, there will be hiccups and teething problems. But at a time when one of the big criticisms of elite sport is that it has been captured by corporate greed, the empty seats are giving symbolic substance to that charge. Dealing with it will require a lot of will, a lot of creative logistical thinking, and a little bit of chaos. But it will be worth it.
On a happier note, I spent part of yesterday putting my languages degree to good use by trawling a few overseas media websites for judgement on Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. Everyone loved it. Especially the French. Now that, mes amis, est un triomphe.