By a Newsnet reporter
British soldiers are to be asked to act as temporary seat fillers in order to address the growing embarrassment over the number of empty seats at London Olympic events.
The move is intended to help fill premium seating that has gone unused throughout the weekend after officials, athletes, sponsors and media personnel apparently failed to turn up.
The soldiers, initially brought in on order to fill gaps in security after the G4S firm debacle, who have finished their shift but are still at the venues, are being asked to fill seats left empty.
“They asked who likes basketball and we put our hands up.”, said one soldier. In a bizarre twist, Games organisers have not ruled out asking G4S security staff to join troops in doubling up as spectotors.
Speaking yesterday, Chairman of the Games Committee, Sebastian Coe when asked about soldiers filling empty seats said:
“If they want to sit there and watch, they can,”
He added: “If we have the army sitting there on rest periods we can ask them if they want to sit in there and watch it,” he said. “We take it seriously. I don’t want to see swathes of those seats empty.”
Lord Coe denied soldiers were being forced to stay and watch the events: “It’s not mobilising the army to solve this.”
Organisers were prompted to act after embarrassing images of empty seats at swimming, gymnastics, tennis, volleyball and dressage events were beamed to audiences world wide.
Some fans, who had failed to get tickets, expressed anger that the seats were going unused.
As well as offering empty seats to soldiers, Games’ organisers also planned to offer so called “accredited seats,” which typically had some of the best views of the action, to members of the public through a variety of approaches.
Some seats are to be filled with students from London schools, who are already at the Olympic Park, while others will be given as “upgrades” to members of the public in poorer seats.
Organisers are also implementing a Wimbledon-style scheme to recycle tickets at hockey, basketball, handball and water polo double-bills, where some fans have been leaving after watching their team.
Lord Coe insisted the venues were “stuffed to the gunnels” with fans, and suggested empty seats were to be expected in the early stages of the competition “as people are figuring out how and where they’re going to spend their time.”
“Let’s not run away with ourselves here,” he told reporters. “This is a moveable situation, it will resolve itself quite quickly.”
He said it was not unusual for members of official delegations, who had been allocated specific seating, to have heavy commitments that meant having to leave earlier than other spectators.
“My day yesterday is a good example – I went to about four venues and only stayed for about an hour in each one.”
In a statement that appeared to challenge the strategy of Coe, Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, said full venues were important for athletes and fans, and suggested implementing a “30-minute rule” whereby seats would be forfeited if left vacant. “I just want to see absolutely every seat filled,” he said.
“We owe it to the British sporting public to give them an opportunity to attend one of the most historic sporting events of their lives.”
However, responding Coe said he believed his organisation’s response was more proportionate.
The empty seats provoked a number of reactions on social media.
Twitter user @stevegtennis posted a picture of a block of empty seats at Wimbledon with the message: “Sorry to report there are loads of empty seats at the #Olympics tennis. Outrage. Please RT (re-tweet) in protest.”
Another user, @marksregard, complained: “All those empty seats…and I know folks that tried for months to get tickets and were unsuccessful.”
Reports that Olympic sponsors were to blame for the empty seats prompted a number of official sponsors, including GE, Visa, P&G and Coca Cola to issue statements that they were using their allocations responsibly.
This was supported by Coe, who insisted. “Sponsors are turning up,”.
Earlier, British culture secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC the empty seats were “very disappointing” and said the organisers were “going to do everything we can to make sure we fill up these stadia.”
“If they’re not going to turn up, we want those tickets to be available for members of the public, because that creates the best atmosphere,” he said.
“I was at the Beijing Games, in 2008… and one of the lessons that we took away from that, is that full stadia create the best atmosphere. It’s best for the athletes, it’s more fun for the spectators, it’s been an absolute priority.”