Sochi games draw sparse crowds, as organizers fill seats with volunteers

Between the threat of terrorism, the remoteness of the location and the high cost of getting to this year's games, several events at the Sochi Olympics are taking place before half-empty stands.

Organizers of the Sochi Games on Monday confirmed that they are using volunteers to fill the seats at less popular events.

Competitions at the games have so far varied from sell-outs at the ice-skating team event on Sunday to half-empty stands at biathlon.

Alexandra Kosterina, a spokeswoman for the Sochi organizing committee, said volunteers are enrolled in a motivation program, which means some of them will be offered tickets to see competitions after hours.

"If we see that there's not a turnout and there are seats available, then yes, we might invite volunteers to join in," Kosterina said.

Although these are early days at Russia's first Winter Games, foreigners have seemingly also been scared off by pervasive security and knotty Russian bureaucracy.

Many foreigners who have made it to Sochi fall into three camps: experienced world travelers who aren't easily spooked; die-hard Olympic regulars who would travel to any host city; or corporate types and wealthier tourists who delegate travel logistics to others.

Japanese retiree Mitsuko Taguchi, 80, is in the first group. Having previously traveled to hotspots Afghanistan and Pakistan, she was unfazed by terror threats targeting the games.

But the expense of traveling to Sochi from the southern Japanese island of Kyushu made her wince.

Including hotel, flights and a $2,000 ticket to the opening ceremony and others for figure skating, she calculated the cost of her 5-night stay in Sochi at $18,000. Taguchi said that is four times what she spent at the 2012 London Games, where she found a cheap bed and breakfast, traveled on public transport and bought black-market tickets.

"Very expensive here. I was surprised," she said after cheering on Japanese teenage skating phenom Yuzuru Hanyu.

To shave expense, Jan van Meer and his three friends — down from the group of 10 he traveled with to Vancouver — flew via Istanbul to Krasnodar, the regional capital, rather than direct to Sochi.

Unfortunately for them, their plane was made to circle for an hour over Istanbul while Turkish authorities dealt with a hijack attempt by a Ukrainian who tried to force his flight to divert to Sochi.

The delay caused Van Meer's group to miss their Krasnodar-to-Sochi train. Once in the Olympic city, they waited 30 minutes to collect the special passes spectators need as well as tickets to get through security. The first four races at the speedskating arena were already finished when the party arrived, faces haggard but nevertheless radiant in the colors of Dutch fans everywhere: bright orange. They quickly cracked open beers.

"A lot of friends of mine, they didn't come," said Van Meer, who shelled out the euro equivalent of nearly $7,000, about what he spent in Vancouver, for 10 days at his fifth Winter Games.

"A few didn't want to come because it was too expensive. Others were worried about the bombers."

Robert Visser said his wife pulled out after December suicide bombings killed 34 people in Volgograd, even though she could have traveled for free like him, courtesy of the auto manufacturer whose cars he sells in the Netherlands.

"A lot of people were invited. They canceled," he said. Casting a glance at his 20 or so travel companions, all dressed like him in orange, he added: "These are the die-hards."

Others said they wrestled with Russian paperwork, visas and the spectator pass.

"The process took a bit of time. I had to have confirmed accommodation and I had to have Olympic tickets, and then I had to apply for a visa," said Magali Robert of Calgary, Alberta, whose 18-year-old daughter is a ski jump forerunner — sent down the hill to test conditions before Olympians compete.

"Then it was a question of getting the flights. They are very expensive from Canada, and it's not easy to get here. That was probably the biggest stumbling block for a lot of people."

Sochi organizers said about 40,000 people attended events on Day 1, but 4,000 others who had tickets did not turn up. Spokeswoman Alexandra Kosterina said Russians tend to cut things close. "We had an issue with a lot of spectators being late."

Organizers say 70 percent of tickets went to Russians, with the rest sold abroad.

Still, some clearly thought twice.

In Vancouver, the beer-and-party hall where Dutch speed skater Sven Kramer and other medalists wowed fans held 3,000 people and it was "packed every evening. We had queues of 3-4 hours," said Mark Bogaerts, global event manager for Dutch brewer Heineken, which runs the venue.

In Sochi, it cut capacity of "Holland House" to just 500, based on its expectation that just 2,500 travelers, including hardcore fans who "travel no matter where, everywhere" and athletes' family members and friends, are coming from the Netherlands.

"That's not much, eh?" said Bogaerts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.