Apparently the Paralympics are sold out. So why aren't they full?
Take the dressage, for example. For the Olympics the arena was packed, but for the Paralympics it's been no more than half full. And that's not because people haven't turned up, it's because only about half as many tickets have been sold. Someone made the decision, probably about a year ago, not to try to fill the Greenwich Park grandstands. This could be down to expectations. No Paralympics has ever come close to selling out before, so why risk trying to sell too many tickets (like Olympic Football) and ending up with an embarrassment of leftovers? Or it could be down to staffing. Only a certain number of Games Makers were trained for the Paralympics, and you can't suddenly magic more out of thin air when public interest climbs at the last minute. The arena didn't seem to be overflowing with purple-clad volunteers, certainly not enough to supervise a packed-out grandstand. Or it could be down to caution. There's been every opportunity to sell hundreds of additional tickets over the last few weeks, but that opportunity doesn't seem to have been grasped. Twenty three thousand seats altogether, but I'd be surprised if ten thousand of them were taken. Great for those of us who got tickets - no designated seats, plenty of choice, and the opportunity to switch location as often as we liked. I loved the freedom... but you didn't get in.
Take the archery, for example. The grandstands in Woolwich weren't full either, indeed nobody had bothered to open the top half of the main stand. Even the lower stands weren't anywhere near full when play began, nor for the first half hour, so surely tickets had been dramatically undersold? Then in they poured and filled up most of the spare spaces, part-obscuring that lovely clear view I'd had of all the action. It turned out the influx had been watching the pistol shooting, which had just finished, and their Day Pass allowed them to come and watch the archery as well. Day Passes are brilliant for spectators because they allow access to a wider range of sports than the Olympics ever delivered. But for this to work there have to be spare seats available at all venues, otherwise no flexibility is possible.
Take the cycling, for example. By the end of Saturday morning's three hour session, the Velodrome was packed. Even the front seats were full, because the Paralympics doesn't suffer from "Absent Olympic Family Syndrome" like the previous Games. But at the start of the session, not full at all. Each ticket makes it really clear when the start time of a session is, so ignorance can't be the reason. Instead it seems that a very large number of spectators are arriving at their venue late because they've underestimated how long it takes to walk the length of the Olympic Park. The Velodrome is twenty minutes walk from Stratford station, plus the time it takes to get through security, so it's terribly easy to misjudge how early you ought to arrive. The spectator guide posted out with the tickets clearly states "Aim to arrive at the Velodrome 75 minutes before your session", but that's such a ludicrous overestimate (8:15am for 9:30? fat chance) that I'm sure most ignored it. Somewhere in all the information mailed out to spectators, the reality of how to get to your seat in time has been poorly communicated.
Take the athletics, for example. Again, full to the back row, pretty much, for every session. That's not surprising, given that the Olympic Stadium must be the one venue LOCOG would have had the most confidence would sell out. But, as I've mentioned before, the empty seat problem becomes dramatically evident as each evening session draws on. Events are supposed to end around 10pm, although a majority of the crowd are vanishing well before that. Once the biggest event of the evening is over, off they trot. On Friday they stayed to see Hannah Cockcroft's gold medal awarded, then walked out and missed the 200m heats and a world record discus throw. On Saturday they stayed to watch Oscar Pistorious defeated, then walked out and missed David Weir's storming 5000m ride. Some will have had long distances to travel and important trains to catch, which is understandable. But the exodus goes well beyond last train issues, to an extent which suggests most people haven't turned up to watch a complete session, they've come to watch the best bits. I found it embarrassing and disrespectful when those last events played out to more empty seats than full (but then I'm a completist who can walk home at the end of the evening so I'm not exactly typical). Fear of queues at Stratford station must be drawing many out early, for those for whom transport comfort is more important than sporting attendance. But I'd say a significant contributory factor to premature departure is the lack of timetable for the athletics events in the stadium, which means it's rarely clear which events are to follow. The schedule rolls by on the scoreboard once, before the start of the session, then never again. It's not printed in the daily programme, nor is there a handout for spectators as is provided at Woolwich or Greenwich. Even the intended closing time of the session isn't clear, not when you're sat in the stadium. Were it more obvious what's on next, and what's still to come, until how late, people might hang around longer. It couldn't hurt to flash up the schedule more often, that's for sure. But no, when people want to leave they'll still leave, and so the audience inexorably fades away.
Who'd have guessed that the Paralympics would sell out - it's a triumph. But if you couldn't get a ticket, sorry, because these Games aren't full.