Organisers admit only half Athens tickets sold

The Olympics are set to be welcomed back to their birthplace by half-empty stadiums as Greek organisers admitted yesterday that they have sold less than half the tickets with the Athens Games only nine days away.

The Olympics are set to be welcomed back to their birthplace by half-empty stadiums as Greek organisers admitted yesterday that they have sold less than half the tickets with the Athens Games only nine days away.

Seats were still available on Monday for the opening ceremony on 13 August, traditionally the hottest ticket in world sport, and Athens can't even guarantee a sell-out for glamour events like the athletics finals.

"As of today we have sold 2,205,273 tickets," said the Games spokesman Michael Zacharatos. "Eighty seven per cent of tickets for the finals and semi- finals of Olympic sports have been sold." Athens organisers tried to put a brave face on it by saying that they are well on their way to hitting the target of 3.5 million seats sold. However, this ignores one of the fundamental pillars of Greece's bid to take back the Olympics: its location.

The Greek capital is on the doorstep of its wealthy European neighbours and as such was supposed to draw a record crowd. But security concerns, poor preparations and overpricing have conspired to deliver an Olympic first, with the host country seeing a drop in tourism during the year of the Games. At the same stage Sydney had sold two-thirds of tickets despite having more than six million on sale.

Athens is spending €1bn (£640.5m) on safeguarding the first summer Games since the September 11 attacks. But this has done little to persuade American tourists, who are among the mainstays of Olympiads, that it is safe to travel. Greek hoteliers have reported up to a 15 per cent slump in visitors' figures. Cartan tours, the US ticketing agent, launched a fire sale this week in the hope of off-loading hundreds of thousands of unsold seats. The tour operator was offering "special last-minute rates" on its website yesterday.

This raises the prospect of empty seats at the premium events as Cartan's allocation is already paid for and counted in the sold category.

Athens organisers have denied reports that the Olympic family - comprised of national committees, sponsors, rights holders, coaches and officials - has returned more than half a million unwanted tickets.

Olympic officials have pinned their hopes on a characteristic last-minute surge from the Greek public after their sporting pride was stirred by the surprise victory of the national football team at Euro 2004.

"We are very happy with the surge in ticket sales over the last week," said Zacharatos. A barrage of advertising on radio and television has seen daily ticket sales rise from an average of 4,000 a day last month to a record of 38,000 in 24 hours on Monday.

But many Greeks remain unwilling to pay to attend an event that analysts said will add significantly to their tax burden for at least a decade. The budget for the Athens Games has soared to nearly £5bn on the back of security costs, construction delays and mismanagement.

* Dog catchers were sent on the offensive yesterday to round up strays who had penetrated the security around the athletes' village. Soldiers stationed around the village caught them by petting and feeding the dogs, an official said.

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