Olympic thoughts – Empty seats

Day 7 of the Tokyo Olympics brought the opening sessions of the athletics. Empty seats have been a feature of sporting events throughout the pandemic and while the Japanese organisers had managed to break up the monotony of the seating with blocks of black, white, grey and brown creating something resembling QR codes or pixelated photos, it brought back memories for me. I attended the opening night of the athletics at the 2004 Olympics in Athens in a stadium that was three-quarters full.

The spectator-less seats of Tokyo provide a back drop to the men’s 10,000m final

It was the final night of my two-week trip to Greece during which, the second week had been spent rushing between Olympic venues to watch as many different sports as possible. To top it off, it was my birthday so a great way to finish off my holiday before heading for home.

The session started at 7:30pm and went on past midnight. The athletics ticket was the most expensive one I bought at 90 Euros, which was £60 at the exchange rates of the time, but I didn’t mind paying that to watch world-class athletics on my birthday. By comparison the much sought after swimming tickets, cost as much as 200 Euros if memory serves me right. Funnily enough I didn’t go to the swimming!

The Olympic stadium from the outside with Olympic flame alight.

I arrived early from an afternoon at the beach volleyball and took a final look round the Olympic complex before entering the stadium. I knew my way round the complex by now from all the time I’d spent there and I’d seen the inside of the stadium on grainy television from watching the torch lighting and opening ceremony a week earlier. Since then it had been Olympics morning, noon and night.

My seat was at the start of the back straight, opposite the finish line, at the end of the first bend. It was on the lower tier, many rows back and, as I walked down the aisle, there were already many other spectators in place. I had to squeeze past twenty people to get to my seat with all the attendant standing up, sitting down and apologising. Once I finally got to my seat, I realised how cramped it was going to be. Elbows touching with people on both sides of me and my knees against the seat in front. I wondered how I’d get through four hours of this.

As had become my tendency, I said “Hello” to the people either side of me and this turned into a chat with the chap on my left. “Are you on your own?” he asked. I replied affirmatively and he went on to explain that he and his wife had been given complimentary tickets by the IT company for whom he worked. The only problem was her ticket was at the other end of the stadium and they weren’t next to each other. Then he pounced.

“Would you mind swapping with her?”

Always happy to help and not feeling it could be any worse, I agreed and we went back through the embarrassing process of squeezing past the twenty seated people to get to the aisle. Up the stairs and out of the arena. We walked around the outside of the stadium, which seemed to take forever, until we were right below the Olympic flame that I’d seen being lit a week before.

I never questioned what was happening as the man phoned his wife. She came out of the stadium handed me her ticket, I handed her mine, they thanked me and that was it – I never saw them again. I walked up to the entrance, showed the ticket to the checker and they let me in with no problem. I emerged into a section full of empty white seats, my heart leapt into my mouth and I thought I’d been duped.

The rows of empty seats where I was to be seated. More empty seats are visible at the other end.

Rationality took over. The ticket was ok, security had let me in and I was just in a section where there was no-one else. On reflection, the organisers probably wanted to fill other areas first, particularly where my original seat was, as that would be seen on television. I strode down the steps to my seat in row 13 and was able to stretch out. There were perhaps fifteen people dotted around the whole section and I certainly wasn’t bumping elbows anymore.

I relax. Comfortably socially-distanced when it wasn’t needed!

There was no-one within ten metres of me – perfect for today’s social distancing but in 2004 we had different issues. Previous Olympics had been disrupted by a bomb in Atlanta and terrorists in Munich and we were only a few years removed from Sept 11th and the invasion of Iraq, security was always tight. There was a long list of things you couldn’t take into stadia and backpacks were always checked. I bought and lived off snack food and drink from vendors the whole week because you weren’t even allowed to take so much as bottled water into an event. Fortunately the prices were reasonable even if it wasn’t healthy. Looking at the photos I’m surprised at how bloated I look.

I tried to get a selfie at every event. The second heat of the women’s 5,000m going on in the background.

With only empty seats between me and the front, I wondered whether I could move down there but didn’t want to risk a confrontation with security or the threat of being removed from the stadium, so for half an hour I sat thirteen rows back with the raft of empty seats stretching out in front of me. At 8pm I snuck down to the front row and sat within metres of the track for the rest of the night. Whenever an event was due to take place, the competing athletes would enter the arena, parade clockwise around the edge for spectators to see them. For me, they were almost in touching distance.

Denise Lewis and other heptathletes parade past on the way to their next event. Twenty-four hours later, Denise would no longer be the reigning champion.

Some events, such as the men’s high jump and discus, took place down the other end of the stadium so I watched them on the video screen. But situated where I was, on the bend, I got to see the 200m and shot putt of the women’s heptathlon featuring reigning champion Denise Lewis and fellow Brit Kelly Sotherton while, of course, all the other track events went past. It was amazing to be so close to the action. The organisers had scheduled a mixture of events for the session such that, almost every discipline was on display.

Kelly Holmes begins her pursuit of double gold beginning in the 800m.

The highlight of the night was the final of the men’s 10,000m; most other events were heats or qualifiers. I wasn’t into running enough then to appreciate the significance of reigning champion Heile Gebrselassie handing over his crown to Kenenisa Bekele. Of course, these days I know much more about running and looking back though all these photos has given me a new appreciation for what I experienced that night and who I saw.

The final of the men’s 10,000m. Ethiopia’s Sileshi Sihine, Heile Gebrselassie and Keninisa Bekele ahead of Kenya’s Moses Mosop and Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop.

At 11pm some people from the neighbouring section realised it would be much more comfortable in my empty section than their own crowd-filled one so they snuck over. After having had it almost to myself, I felt strangely territorial about them entering my space even though there were more than enough seats for everyone. Maybe it was they were loud and noisy that irked me but no matter, it really didn’t take anything away from my experience. I was just tired after a week of constantly rushing from venue to venue; getting up at 6am, getting to bed at midnight and surviving on less sleep than I needed. Four hours of athletics had been a great end to my Olympic experience. When London rolled around eight years later, I was happy to sit at home and watch on television as I’d already been there, done that.

Another view of the empty seats as I stand below the scoreboard with Olympic torch towering behind it.

I would apologise for the low quality photos and video but it was the early days of digital. My camera was only 3MP, couldn’t record sound and I borrowed a 512MB SD card from someone at work to be able to store more images. Watching these video after so many years reminds me of the serendipity and luck that came my way when I agreed to swap seats with someone I’d never met!

A silent pan round the Olympic stadium – many empty seats

Eventual gold medallist Sweden’s Caroline Kluft runs in lane 3 (lane 1 is empty) while GB’s bronze medallist, Kellly Sotherton, runs nearest the camera. Powerful running in the final heptathlon event of day 1 – the 200m

Kenenisa Bekele in the final 200 metres on his way to gold holds off Sihine with the legendary Heile Gebrselassie twenty seconds adrift and featuring from 21-30secs in

A heat of the women’s 100m takes place in the distance. Heptathletes can be seen warming up in the foreground

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