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Too many VIPs? Some fans get first-class Olympics

Sunday - 8/5/2012, 8:52am  ET

Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - It's hardly been an Olympian moment for the Smith family, who traveled from northeast England to London for a couple of days, living in hope they could stand beside a road and cheer Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins in his quest for gold in a cycling race.

Instead, they found themselves along a road near King Henry VIII's palace at Hampton Court, squashed in an area that had been set aside for viewing by the general public. The area had a VIP zone, blocked off by a curtain. They couldn't see around it.

"(The Olympics) were supposed to be for the people!" said Lawrence Smith, 61, his voice rising in anger. "And that hasn't happened."

Millions of people have tried and failed to get tickets for events at these Olympics, and officials have spent the whole week trying to explain why television pictures from the London games keep showing empty seats in the background _ seats that have been allocated to people closely associated with the rings.

But let's face it: There are a heap of VIPs out there at the games. Even before you start with presidents or prime ministers taking in the sights, there are more than 200 teams participating, and each comes with a passel of officials _ like the herd that is the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Then there are the others who lead sports federations _ the people who run FIFA, the world soccer federation and the IAAF _ the track federation and the biggest beast on the block _ all get seats for things like ping pong and badminton. If the officials are busy, those seats go empty.

And then there's the media _ thousands of them. And the broadcast rights holders and network executives that come along with them _huge! And that's even before you get to the international sponsors _ Coke, McDonald's, Dow _ all of whom use the Olympics to enhance their business opportunities.

"There are a lot of legitimate VIPs," said Stephen Greyser, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School and an Olympics expert. "The question is should the number of tickets they are able to get be rationed in some meaningful and sensible form?"

Even Wiggins took on the ticketing issues after his gold-medal race, describing it as a bit of a "prawn sandwich fest."

"It was good to go back outside the gates where all the real fans were," he said. "It's a shame they could not see the medal ceremony."

Those dashed expectations come at a time of economic austerity in Britain, as critics claim that millions in taxpayer money were spent to build stadiums and finance the games, only for the public to be left out.

All that privilege does not sit well with a British public that paid 9.3 billion pounds ($14.6 billion) for the London Olympics and who went through rounds of a complicated ticket process in hopes of seeing something. The first round of sales saw 22 million requests for the 6.6 million tickets available.

Another decision _ moving the marathon out of east London _ infuriated many who live near the stadium in Stratford. After suffering through years of noise and construction to get the park built, this would have been their one chance to see the games. Organizers said the problem was congestion, but critics argued the real problem was that east London didn't look pretty on television.

London organizers say they are doing what they can to address the ticketing issues.

"We always said we wanted the British public to be in there and the demand for the British public has been so enormous that we will continue to drive any tickets that we get back and any contingencies, any returns, direct to the British public," said committee spokeswoman Jackie Brock-Doyle.

Yet no matter what organizers do at the Olympics, a gulf separates the haves and the have-nots.

Take the Prestige pavilion, where hospitality packages include pink champagne, scallop canapes and multi-course dinners _ deluxe white tablecloth treatment for companies who see the expense as a mere trade-off for deals worth millions. Even when they have mere journalists to lunch, the chicken liver and foie gras pate comes on a plate with an imprint of the River Thames. The bread is pleasantly warm and each course comes with its own selection of wine.

One could get used to this treatment. And the people who do don't mind spending 4,500 pounds ($7,000) each to attend the men's 100-meter dash _ which, after all, is a 10-second event. Spectators may not be close enough to touch Usain Bolt, but with these tickets you will see him sweat.

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