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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Greek fan support a tragedy

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

Sportscaster Bob Costas can make almost anything sound perfectly plausible, a skill he no doubt polished while doing Montreal Expos' games. But even he is having trouble selling the notion that all those empty seats in Athens aren't becoming a distraction.

Try as he might the other night — and Costas invoked a national holiday, heat, security, you name it — he couldn't explain away this curious phenomenon. Nor, to be fair, has anybody else.

Everywhere there are outstanding performances and world records. A regular five-ring circus of sport and drama has been unfolding before us. But save a handful of events such as last night's U.S. vs. Greece basketball game, there haven't been all that many spectators in the stands to enjoy them.

Indifference is threatening to become the Greek tragedy of these Olympics.

A table tennis session drew fewer than 300 in a 6,000-seat venue. Some events have drawn fewer than 1,000. In some venues the turnouts have been so sparse that arena background music has drowned out the "crowds."

It isn't happening in just fringe events, either. Gymnastics, a popular staple, has played to oceans of unoccupied blue seats. Likewise with weightlifting.

Too many arenas have the look of the sparse Jeep O'ahu Bowl turnouts — minus the inflatable vehicles in the end zones, of course. It sometimes seems as if there are more athletes, volunteers and media than spectators at some sites. Like the old Jim Leahey line, how long will it be before they start introducing the spectators to the participants instead of vice versa?

If you're NBC, half-empty venues are hardly an advertisement for the events you are trying to sell. If nobody in Athens cares enough to show up for weightlifting, gymnastics, rowing or whatever, the viewers at home are left to wonder why they should bother.

So, where are all the people? Sure, August is a big vacation month in Greece. But in a country of 11 million people — 3 million in the Athens area — there have to be a few who have stayed. It wasn't like nobody knew the athletes were coming.

The IOC was right to award the Games to Athens because, after an absence of more than a century, the Olympics belonged back in the place of their birth, both ancient and modern.

But the danger of continued no-shows in Greece, the smallest country since Finland in 1952 to host the Summer Games, is what it could mean for sparsely populated and less wealthy countries later.

If Athens can't deliver, the IOC could become a lot more choosy about where it hands out future Olympiads. And, how boring would it be if the Olympics were only rotated between a handful of G-7 countries?

In the meantime, too many of the hosts are missing a great show. And there are plenty of good seats available.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.