'People leave, especially to get food': Organizers struggle to explain empty seats at Rio 2016

Even in an Olympics where vacant seats have become the norm, the sight of the stands at Tuesday's women's soccer semifinal between Canada and Germany in Belo Horizonte, north of Rio, was enough to stop you in your tracks. With just days to go before the end of the Games, organizers say they're still trying to solve the problem.

With just days to go, Games organizers say they're still trying to solve the problem

Most of the seats at Mineirao Stadium were empty for the women's soccer semifinal between Canada and Germany on Tuesday. (Marie Morrissey/CBC)

Even in an Olympics where vacant seats have become the norm, the sight of the stands at Tuesday's women's soccer semifinal between Canada and Germany was enough to stop you in your tracks. 

At the giant Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, north of Rio, the entire upper deck was empty and soccer fans in the main level seemed far outnumbered by empty seats.
Canada's players react after losing to Germany. Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, about 350 kilometres north of Rio, had thousands of empty seats for the game. (Mariana Bazo/Reuters)

Similar scenes have played out at venue after venue during these Games, including swaths of empty seats at gold medal swimming races, Tuesday's gymnastics final and the Olympic Stadium's track events.

'We are worried'

Reporters pressed Games spokesman Mario Andrada on the issue Tuesday morning, noting at least one British athlete has complained it doesn't feel like the Olympics.

"We understand some athletes are disappointed," Andrada said. "We understand that the media is worried. We are worried."

The Games aren't very popular with Brazilians, many of whom are struggling through a crippling recession and wish their government hadn't spent billions of dollars on a sporting event. 

But officials insist ticket sales are strong. They offer several explanations for the empty seats, including that many people may have bought tickets and simply not shown up, and "people leave, especially to get food."
Competitors run past empty seats during the 10,000-metre final in Olympic Stadium. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

Concerns over empty seats grew this week with reports money is now tight for the Paralympics that run Sept. 7-18 in Brazil.

Host countries typically help cover the costs of bringing athletes from around the world to the Games. But Paralympic officials now say grants from Brazil to help pay for that travel are overdue, potentially jeopardizing the ability of Paralympians in roughly 50 countries to make the trip.

Canadian athletes wouldn't be affected by the travel money issues, but they could see reduced services once in Brazil, including transportation. But Paralympic officials insist the Games themselves will go ahead regardless of the challenges.


The 2012 Paralympic Games in London nearly sold out, but ticket sales for Brazil have been especially weak, with nearly 90 per cent of tickets still available.

Rio's mayor pledged a multimillion-dollar bailout this week, but Paralympic officials told CBC there's no guarantee that money will come through or that it will be enough.
There was no shortage of empty seats just minutes before competition was set to start at Olympic Stadium on Tuesday night. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)

Meanwhile, with just days left in the competition, Olympic officials remain optimistic ticket sales can improve.

"Despite the problems that we have in stadiums not looking full, we are going after this problem, trying to solve [it] and we believe that the course we took in offering tickets the way we did is the right one," Andrada said.

About the Author

Paul Hunter

Foreign correspondent

Paul Hunter is a correspondent for CBC News in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he was a political correspondent for The National in Ottawa. In his more than two decades with the CBC, he has reported from across Canada and more than a dozen countries, including Haiti, Japan and Afghanistan.