Shashank Bengali

LONDON: Organizers grappled Sunday with the first controversy of the London Olympics as athletes and fans complained about large numbers of empty seats for swimming, gymnastics, tennis and other supposedly sold-out events.

Rows of no-shows at marquee events — including prime seats at American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s gold-medal performance in the 400-meter individual medley Saturday night and at Briton Andy Murray’s first-round tennis match Sunday at Wimbledon — made for gloomy television and prompted Olympic officials to call in soldiers and students to fill the empty spaces.

The hullabaloo threatened to overshadow what has otherwise been a smooth start to London’s first Olympics in 64 years. The exuberant opening ceremonies drew a record TV audience, transportation has been running mostly glitch-free and the British on Sunday claimed their first medal, a silver in the women’s cycling road race.

Olympic officials said they had begun an investigation into just which groups weren’t using all their seats, and in the meantime had invited local students and teachers to use spare tickets.

But among the sports-mad British, those moves were unlikely to soothe months of frustration at a ticketing process that’s been seen as opaque, complicated and tilted in favor of wealthy corporate sponsors and individuals who were willing to pay thousands of pounds to see multiple events.

“I do take that seriously,” the games’ chairman, Sebastian Coe, said when asked about the vacant seats. “I don’t want to see swaths of those seats empty, and that is why we will make sure where we possibly can that we get people into those seats as and when they are not being used.”

Fans shut out

At every Olympics, some of the best seats are set aside for VIPs, organizers and corporate sponsors and their guests, including many who don’t show at the start of the competitions. In Beijing four years ago, officials famously had to call in emergency seat-fillers — some of whom needed explanations of the rules of the events they were watching.

Officials insisted Sunday that the sponsors weren’t at fault and suggested that the majority of empty seats were in areas reserved for members of the so-called Olympic family — including International Olympic Committee officials, national federations, broadcast partners and some sponsors. Others appeared to have been blocked off for journalists and athletes.

Organizers said that those areas were unlikely to be filled in early rounds when medals aren’t being handed out. Another problem, they noted, was that the opening ceremonies didn’t conclude until nearly 1 a.m. Saturday, dampening attendance at events that morning.

Three-quarters of the roughly 9 million Olympics tickets this year belong to the British public, officials said, but many fans say they’ve been shut out. One sign of the ongoing demand: Crowds stood six-deep along the streets of central London and in Hyde Park for the men’s cycling road race, where tickets weren’t required.

30-minute rule

While the London games’ official website showed nearly every ticketed event as being sold out on Sunday, the second full day of competition, dozens of fans posted pictures online of vacant rows at various events.

“Everyone knows someone who was denied tickets to these events,” said Peter McColl, a writer and activist in Edinburgh. “I’m sure they’ll be very disappointed.”

Even athletes were finding tickets impossible to come by. Indian tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi wrote on Twitter Saturday afternoon: “Been trying for 6 hours now to buy my wife a ticket to watch me play tomorrow. Still no luck, and the grounds here feel empty. ABSURD!!!”

The head of Australia’s Olympic team, Nick Green, lamented that prime seats were unfilled Saturday night when his women’s swim team won gold in the 4x100 freestyle relay.

“We would have loved to have more Australians in there to witness what these girls did last night. We were a bit disappointed,” Green said Sunday.

The head of the British Olympic team, Colin Moynihan, called for a 30-minute rule to be implemented: If ticket-holders don’t arrive in the first half-hour of an event, their seats should be reallocated.