Sochi Olympics: Sparkling venues filled with empty seats

Russia has done it. The venues are working. The lights go on when they should. The trains and buses run smoothly. But as CBC's David Common writes, the big headache at the Sochi Olympics appears to be empty seats.

IOC claims 92% of tickets sold, but observers say that doesn’t seem probable

A lot of Russian men have been touching me since I arrived in Sochi. Mostly at airports, train stations and Olympic entry points — all legitimate in the name of security. Of course, just a week ago, there were predictions that the security apparatus would have to be so tight that nothing would move. Hotels were said to be cesspools and the Games themselves would be lucky to occur problem-free.

There have been issues. There's the American athlete, the one with NFL experience, who used his bobsled training to push through the troubling door when he got locked inside his bathroom. The toilet seats installed upside down. The fire hoses installed beside the toilet. The Canadian journalist who returned to his room to find the lock had been changed.

But the venues are working. The lights go on when they should. The trains and buses run smoothly. The gondola to the mountains is a little stickier, but not by much. What has been built looks spectacular and the opening ceremony was stunning, although one of the Olympic rings refused to come out (recent legislation in Russia should make almost anything fearful of coming out).

In short, Russia has done it. The organizers deserve credit for the gargantuan logistical effort. The politicians here deserve criticism for the means to achieve it: bulldozing human rights by permitting migrant labour to go unpaid, for not consulting or compensating families uprooted by the construction.

The big headache appears to be empty seats. Just two weeks before the opening ceremonies, Russia’s Olympic Organizing Committee said in a statement we “do not envisage having empty seats.” It’s hard to see how they couldn’t have. Even the grand opening show had more than a few available spots. One Russian volunteer told us organizers were stuffing the stands at the last minute, begging volunteers to rush over to the stadium.

As Mark McMorris bolted down the slopestyle course, the stands were far from full. The first women’s hockey game to be played was at roughly 60 per cent capacity. Just slightly more watched the next match, when Canada dominated the Swiss team.

Sparkling venues made quiet by small crowds contrast against the IOC claim that 92 per cent of all tickets have been sold. It simply doesn’t seem probable.

Volunteer doubts IOC claim

Russian fans can buy their tickets directly from the organizers while foreigners must purchase from specific sellers. For Canadians, Americans and others — that is CoSports.

On their website, CoSports shows availability for virtually every event, including high-demand men’s hockey and figure skating. Biathlon is effectively sold out, but that can be explained by Russians deep love of the sport and a limited number of spots from which to actually watch.

Speedskating is notorious for being one of the toughest tickets to get, and yet the weekend events never seemed to fill more than three-quarters of Adler Arena’s 8,000 seats.

We’ve asked Russian officials to explain the empty seats… and the answers provided swing from obfuscation (there aren’t any) to cultural (Russians always arrive late). They claim 92 per cent of their tickets have been sold, including the nearly one-third of all spots reserved for non-Russians. Our Russian volunteer highly doubts that number.

It is expensive to reach Sochi and pricey to stay. There are direct flights only from within Russia, or through Germany and Turkey. Along with the security fears, it is conceivable many foreigners who planned to make the trip changed their mind.

Another factor is cost. Tickets range is price from $15 to $1,200. But the average monthly salary in Russia is $890, so even modestly priced seats are difficult to afford.

Vancouver sold out 97 per cent of its available tickets. Empty seats were hard to see, so the figure seems entirely believable.

London had the same sellout rate, but because it was the bigger and more popular summer games, there were 8.5 million tickets versus Vancouver’s 1.5 million. Whereas in Sochi, there are a mere quarter million available spots, making empties that much more troubling.


David Common covers a wide range of stories for CBC News, from war to disrupting scams. He is a host with the investigative consumer affairs program Marketplace, and a correspondent with The National. David has travelled to more than 85 countries for his work, has lived in cities across Canada, and been based as a foreign correspondent in the U.S. and Europe. He has won a number of awards, but a big career highlight remains an interview with Elmo. You can reach David at, Twitter: @davidcommon.