The snowboard halfpipe competition was supposed to be one of the showcase events of the Sochi Winter Olympics, with American superstar Shaun White trying to become a three-time gold medalist. And while the athletes delivered a gripping competition Tuesday night, with White finishing a surprising fourth, there was something missing; fans.
There were plenty of empty seats at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park when the competition got under way, despite warm weather, a late start and all of the hype surrounding White.
Ticket sales and attendance have become an issue at Sochi and organizers have taken to filling seats with volunteers. Crowds at several finals have been somewhat thin, including the men's moguls, women's moguls and women's slopestyle. During the semi-final of the women's slopestyle there were dozens of empty seats and the arena was barely half full for the women's hockey game between the United States and Switzerland.
Organizers insist that ticket sales have been strong and that most venues are nearly sold out. They added that 70,000 people have jammed into the Olympic Park on a daily basis to watch medal presentations and listen to concerts.
To be sure, many events have been packed, particularly figure skating and biathlon, a popular sport in Russia. And organizers have been taken aback by the response to curling, which is not well known in Russia but has seen big, noisy crowds.
"We have venues with absolutely fantastic attendance," Dmitry Perlin, head of ticketing for the Sochi Games said this week. "We have venues which have quite long sessions, for example, so some people come early, some late. It depends…. overall we are happy with the attendance."
Part of the problem, officials said, is the "Russian mentality" of showing up late and not taking into account the length of time it takes to get through security.
"We had some problems with basically a Russian mentality in a lot of ways, that Russians like to come to the event not prior but as close as possible, and that is why, indeed, we had an issue of a lot of spectators being late for [events]," said Aleksandra Kosterina, a spokesperson for the local Games' organizers.
Another factor, officials said, is a growing tendency by some fans at the Extreme Park to leave their seats and stand closer to the finishing area. "So we feel this [is a] trend and if you will take the whole picture it will be an absolutely packed venue," said Perlin.
Sochi is also a small city in a fairly remote location, meaning it doesn't have a large population to draw on. Roughly three-quarters of the tickets to all of the sports have been sold to Russians, many of whom have come from Moscow, which is about a two-hour flight. There have also been reports that companies in Canada and the United States have sent fewer people to these Games, due to safety concerns.
There is no shortage of tickets available. A quick look at a website set up for fans to resell their tickets listed dozens for men's and women's hockey, including several tickets for the women's semi-final game priced at face value. Tickets for the medal round games of the men's hockey tournament were going for about $364.
Many of the sports, particularly at the Extreme Park, are also new to Russians and understanding what's going on isn't always easy. During the final of the men's snowboard slopestyle last week, several fans expressed bemusement at the event and the lack of Russian announcing. One group of children gave up watching altogether and took to building snowmen.
Vadim Feduykov has done some snowboarding near his home in Stavropol, about 300 kilometres from Sochi, but he had never seen anything like slopestyle. "It's cool," he said as he watched with his three-year old daughter. He wasn't completely sure what was going on but joked that maybe his daughter might try it one day. "I hope she brings me a medal maybe in 15 years," he said.
When he found out his inquisitor was from Canada, he quickly changed the topic to a sport he does follow closely, hockey.