Armchair Pundit

Empty seats spoil swimming spectacle

Alex Chick

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I came in search of empty seats.

Unparked bums became a major issue when they marred the opening day of Olympic action at London 2012 at 'sold out' sports such as swimming.

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This morning, the Aquatic Centre again sported several hundred incriminating white voids as organisers scrambled to find somebody - anybody! - to plug the gaps.

Most frustratingly, the worst-affected areas were in the best and most visible seats. Back in the gods it was rammed with an eclectic mix of flag-waving Brits, Aussies, Dutch, Americans and Canadians.

The visual of empty seats may not be pretty - it has been blamed on corporates failing to fill their allocation - but even if live bodies can be found to attend, the damage has been done.

Many more people wanted to attend the Olympic Games than got tickets - drafting in soldiers (who did so conspicuously at the Basketball Arena) or schoolkids does not alter the fact that thousands who wanted to visit the Olympics were turned away for no good reason.

Those who did get in were treated to some fine action, featuring an Olympic Record from Emily Seebohm in the women's 100m backstroke, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps (now in that order until Phelps beats his great rival), plus appearances from British darlings Rebecca Adlington, Liam Tancock and Gemma Spofforth and a sparkling performance from Wales's Georgia Davies.

In terms of sheer sporting bang for your buck, you cannot beat a morning of swimming. The sheer speed with which they reeled off the heats surprised this aquatics novice.

In little more than two hours, they rattled through 31 races in six disciplines.

You couldn't help but feel a little sorry for the swimmers, who found themselves shuttled through on a high-speed conveyor belt.

For each of these people, the race was the culmination of four years' work. Yet it was just in, out, next!

They're probably used to it - and as swimming hogs some 32 gold medals, this is the only way they can plough through a mammoth schedule.

One woman determined to extend her Olympic moment was Turkmenistan's Jennet Saryeva, who completed her 400m freestyle heat 76 seconds after her rivals.

It was almost Eric the Eel stuff, and Saryeva received some of the morning's most enthusiastic cheers as she set a new personal best by a second..

Despite the empty patches, the arena certainly holds the noise well. During Spofforth's heat I nearly lost an eardrum to the peculiarly high-pitched echo that only comes with swimming.

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My first impulse was to try and locate some earplugs before Rebecca Adlington appeared. Sadly, having spent my last five pounds on coffee and a flapjack, it was a vain quest.

The bad news for tinnitus specialists was that Adlington won so comfortably (though as it happened, she only just made the final), it just took the edge off the noise.

A bold piece of architecture, the Aquatics Centre nonetheless feels unnecessarily claustrophobic.

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A typical view: lots of roof

The roof sweeps dramatically down over the pool, filling over half your field of vision if you watch from anything but the front tier of seats.

Eurosport commentator James Parrack compared it to holding a swimming competition in a whale's belly.

The practical impact for spectators was to block out the stands opposite with a giant, sludge-brown construction.

It does seem somewhat churlish to complain about innovative design, however, so I will suppress my Luddite tendencies. Nobody else seemed to mind.


ACCESSIBILITY: 8/10 - Just about the first building on your left as you come into the Olympic Park. Only small queues at the very well-staffed security points. Loads of purple-shirted volunteers all over the place.

VIEW: 6/10 - The above roof quibbles cost a point, as does the apparently restricted view afforded to some spectators for the 10m platform diving.

FANS: 9/10 - Noisy, enthusiastic, cosmopolitan. Everything you could ask from an Olympic crowd. If only it had been a completely full house.

SPECTACLE: 6/10 - Swimming is one of those sports that will always look better on TV, especially with all those underwater cameras. What the in-stadium spectator gets is a series of different-coloured hats attached to submerged bodies, all moving at very slightly different speeds.

X-FACTOR: 9/10 - Swimming just feels like a big Olympic sport, even in the heats. The crowd created a superb atmosphere, and it is hard to imagine anyone not enjoying themselves. Also, venues in the Olympic Park will always get a slight boost - everyone just seems happy to be here.

Total score: 38/50

Today I also visited:

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ACCESSIBILITY: 8/10 - I watched USA versus France and arrived right on tip-off, and found no queues. While the media section was rammed, that is testament to the appeal of the match rather than any problem with the facility. As an Olympic Park venue, it is easy to get to.

VIEW: 8/10 - The Basketball Arena boasts a futuristic exterior in white polythene but inside it looks like - well, a basketball arena. Good views all round, especially if the seats in front are unoccupied.

FANS: 7/10 - Maybe it was that the USA crushed France 98-71, but the crowd did not seem completely into it despite making a decent noise. The arena MC tried hard - too hard, when he forced the crowd to sing 'Happy Birthday' to a mortified youngster.

SPECTACLE: 7/10 - In a nation where anyone over 6' 6" is invariably described as 'hulking', 'lumbering' or both, it was amazing to see the speed, agility and dexterity of the USA players. The dunks were fun, but the result was just too easy to create any real tension.

X-FACTOR: 6/10 - The self-consciously American presentation meant this felt less like London than Los Angeles. The play-by-play announcer was the other side of the pond, as did such in-game devices as 'Kiss Cam'. It was all very slick, but could have been any basketball game, anywhere.

Total score: 36/50

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Alex Chick will be writing from London 2012 throughout the Olympic Games.

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