Anger as fat cats take cream of Olympic tickets

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The Independent Online

Organisers of the Sydney Olympic Games were yesterday engulfed in a wave of outrage after they admitted that the Australian public stood little chance of securing tickets for prime events next year, with most of the best seats secretly set aside to sell to wealthy individuals and corporations at inflated prices.

Organisers of the Sydney Olympic Games were yesterday engulfed in a wave of outrage after they admitted that the Australian public stood little chance of securing tickets for prime events next year, with most of the best seats secretly set aside to sell to wealthy individuals and corporations at inflated prices.

The Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, Socog, was forced to reveal full details of its ticket allocation programme after a series of damaging leaks over the past week - in particular, the revelation that 350,000 seats were reserved as so-called "premium packages" to the rich.

In the worst public relations crisis to hit the 2000 Games to date, organisers acknowledged that they had misled ordinary Australians about the numbers of tickets made available through a public ballot held earlier this year that left thousands of sports fans disappointed. Last year, they claimed that 52 per cent of seats would be put in the ballot; in fact, the figure was just 33 per cent.

The 34-page document released yesterday infuriated people who missed out on tickets. It showed, for instance, that only 16 out of 9,400 A-grade seats were made available to the public for the men's diving finals. Only 400 out of 10,800 A-class tickets were set aside for the public at the basketball final, and just 151 out of 8,500 for the gymnastics event.

The 24,000 people who managed to get tickets to the opening ceremony of the Games, against odds of 17 to 1, will take up just over 23 per cent of the seats. The odds were far lower for fans who applied to watch the men's 1500m final; less than 5,000 of them were successful. In many cases, the lion's share of seats was set aside for buyers of premium packages, sponsors, International Olympic Committee officials, national committee members and international sports federations. A second public ballot is yet to be staged.

The Australian public, until now starry-eyed about the prospect of hosting the hallowed Games, has been left angry and cynical by the disclosures. They were led to believe that they had equal access to all events across the Games.

Mark Taylor, the former cricket captain engaged by Socog to front television commercials last year to promote the ticket sales, yesterday distanced himself from the advertising campaign. "I feel sure they [the public] were disappointed because, as I said in my commercials, I'd like to see as many different Australians there as possible," Taylor said.

Socog defended its ticket allocation at an ill-tempered press conference yesterday, with Graham Richardson, the chairman of the ticket committee, conceding only that it had been a mistake not to give information on the numbers of tickets sold to premium buyers.

Kevan Gosper, Socog's vice-president, was even less repentant, declaring: "I was satisfied that what was being considered for the public and Australians at large was orderly and appropriate, so I have no apology for any matter that we are going to discuss here today."

Others, though, appear more alive to the damage that has been done to the reputation of the Games. Sandy Hollway, Socog's chief executive, offered his resignation last week over the ticketing fiasco, but Michael Knight, the Olympics Minister, declined to accept it and packed him off on holiday instead.

Yesterday Knight said that Socog had managed to conjure up an additional 500,000 seats for the public, bringing the total offered to ordinary Australians to 3.5 million.

The storm of criticism reached the highest level yesterday, with the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, saying that he sympathised with the public mood. "On the face of it, they appear to have been misled, to say the least, and I can understand their anger and I think they're entitled to an explanation," he said.

Bob Carr, the Premier of New South Wales, said he was disappointed by the way Socog had handled the controversy and called on organisers to find as many extra seats as possible. "I understand the legitimate anger of people who think they weren't given the full story at a time when they made their application for tickets," he said.

But Carr resisted calls for Knight's head, saying: "No extra seat is provided by pointing the finger or condemning people at this late time."

Kerry Chikarowski, the New South Wales Opposition leader, said: "I think it's fair to say that most Australians probably had as good a chance of getting tickets to the Games as they did of competing in Olympic finals."

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