Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Security" - the convenient excuse for everything

During the past week, I've had a couple of Chinese friends tell me very earnestly that all the vacant seats we saw in the Olympic venues were in fact necessarily kept empty because they were allocated to volunteers or "security staff".

I suppose the kernel of such an idea gets distributed through the propaganda channels, and then each person internalises it, becomes convinced of its truth, elaborates an explanation or defence of the theory with which to confound any sceptics (i.e., us doubting foreigners).

They are soon quite impervious to reason, so all you can do is gently rag them about it.

"So, how many of these "security staff" are there supposed to be? Do we really need 1 of them for every 2 or 3 actual spectators? And if those seats are for them, why aren't they using them? Surely they can't all be wandering around in other parts of the stadium at the same time? Or perhaps they're all wearing cloaks of invisibility?"

No, the suggestion that there was any 'security' objective behind the masses of empty seats - whole rows, whole blocks of them, in every venue - was utterly fatuous. And if it were really just a question of improving evacuation times in the event of an emergency, the Chinese authorities would surely have gone the whole hog and cut stadium occupancy down to 20% or 30%.

The various cock-ups (and/or targeted discouraging of overseas tourism) involving visa issuing and ticket sales meant that the number of overseas visitors here this month has been pretty tiny, far fewer than in a regular August. And I don't think there have been that many visitors from anywhere outside of Beijing. The attendance situation was dire in the opening few days. The organizers were fudging the figures as desperately as they could, and press-ganging every spare volunteer they could find to come and fill up empty seats - but the official attendance figures were still below 60% for some of the less sexy sports. They weren't even very good for the swimming (in which China does not excel). Even the Bird's Nest was a bit thinly populated during the day (so I'm told by friends who managed to go; I wasn't lucky enough to get tickets for anything there), and only around 85% full for the big athletics finals in the evenings. It is said that the corporate boxes were especially underused, some of them completely deserted (someone was still trying to flog me seats in one just a few days beforehand, but wouldn't take a sensible offer).

For an Olympics where the organizers were bragging of their unprecedented feat of selling every single ticket in advance, this was a shocking, shaming development. After a few days, they began bussing in large groups of local sports fans (particularly for sports in the bigger venues, like football and baseball). They were also giving away scads of tickets to the volunteers - many of which trickled down to ordinary folks like me and my friends. People who'd actually gone through the rigmarole of the lottery to buy tickets may soon have been feeling a little pissed off; if you really wanted to go to something at this Olympics, you could get tickets for FREE - maybe not for the thing you would most have wanted to see, but for something. Why waste your hard-earned cash??

Business Week has a good article on this.


Anonymous said...

Yes. Absurd.

I wonder how much of the... the vacuum might be attributable to technology -- the ready availability of the Games' events on TV and the Internet?

Froog said...

I don't think that has got much worse in recent years, JES. There's been saturation TV coverage for, what, 30 years or so now. I'm sure attendance figures will hold up pretty well in London, and in any other future host city that's reasonably accessible and reasonably visitor-friendly.

Foreign visitors were severely discouraged from attending here in Beijing. And the local Chinese just don't have that much interest in or understanding of most of the sports. (Many of them had been applying for tickets through the distribution lotteries purely so that they could sell them on at a fat profit, I'm sure. But there wasn't that much scope for profiteering, with very few affluent visitors here, and a huge over-supply of unwanted tickets.)

However, I did remark that we have perhaps been spoiled by our constant exposure to the TV close-up over the years. One goes to a major sporting event for the sense of occasion; but one almost always frets that one didn't really get as good a view of the action as one would at home on TV. That's particularly true of athletics, which can seem impossibly remote in a big stadium like the Bird's Nest (even if you're right at the trackside), and is mostly a blink-and-you've-missed-it kind of deal anyway. I suspect that nowadays a lot of visitors to things like these Olympics watch the action more on the giant TV screens around the venues than they watch it 'in the flesh'.