Australians slow out of the blocks for Olympics

DESPITE a new sports hero being wheeled out every day, from just- retired cricket captain, Mark Taylor, to the young star of Wimbledon, Jelena Dokic, efforts to persuade Australians to buy tickets for the Sydney Olympics next year have been branded a failure.

They have had the first pick of tickets to the Millennium Games, but have proved curiously reluctant to snap them up. The exclusive six-week period in which Australian residents could apply ended at midnight on Friday: despite a last-minute rush, the Sydney Morning Herald said, the marketing campaign has failed.

The Sydney organising committee reserved 5 million of the 9.6 million tickets for the Australian public, but in the first two weeks of the six- week ballot it received only 34,000 applications. By last week that had risen to "more than 50,000". Unless almost every Australian applied in the last day or two, the committee will end up with millions of unsold tickets.

In Sydney, the euphoria of 1993, when it learned it had won the contest to host the 2000 Olympics and let off an unprecedented number of fireworks from the Harbour Bridge, is all but exhausted. The business district is disrupted by building works, Bondi residents are objecting to the construction of a volleyball stadium which will shut half the beach for nine months, and shopkeepers on the route to Stadium Australia, the main venue, are complaining that traffic measures will ruin their businesses.

The main reason for reluctance to buy tickets for the Olympics, however, appears to be the cost. Apart from the finals of the athletics and swimming, the events most likely to be oversubscribed were the opening and closing ceremonies; but on those days more than 90,000 of the 110,000 seats in Stadium Australia have been designated "Class A", at A$1,382 (pounds 600) a seat. Most applications have been for the small number designated "Class D", at A$105.

To see the finals of the men's and women's 100 metres races will cost at least A$165, while the last session at the Aquatics Centre is priced at A$455.

In its defence the organising committee has pointed out that 70 per cent of tickets for the Olympics cost less than A$60, but that assumes people will be interested in watching more obscure events, such as archery, Graeco-Roman wrestling, and modern pentathlon.

"We're very comfortable with where we are," said John O'Neill, the organising committee's ticketing communications manager. "We think we will have a very good result."

Cynics are saying that the organisers deliberately overpriced tickets for the most popular events, confident that overseas demand from well- heeled foreign tourists will exceed supply.

But a survey of visitors to the 1996 Games in Atlanta suggests that most Olympics fans are interested only in the sport they have come to see, and by-pass other attractions. Far from staying in five-star hotels, eating and drinking in expensive restaurants and bars and seeking out cultural attractions as well as sport, the average Olympics visitor stays in a motel, eats at McDonald's and largely restricts spending to tickets for the most popular sporting events. Sydney, which has spent a million dollars on a facelift, from widening pavements to providing official fruit stalls, may reap less international income than it expects.

More and more Sydney residents - including the press officer of the Olympics Co- ordinating Authority, it has emerged - are planning to be away during the Games. This has given Melbourne, Sydney's traditional rival, an idea. If you are planning to rent out your house during the Olympics, the Victorian Tourist Commission is suggesting to Sydneysiders, why not come and spend three weeks in Melbourne?