February 10, 2014 Updated: February 10, 2014 at 7:53 pm
SOCHI, Russia - Full stands.
This is one of the surprises of the 2014 Olympic Games. At most venues, the seats are filled, or nearly filled. Despite threats of terrorism, tickets are selling consistently.
Packed venues are not a given at the Olympics. At the 2004 Athens Games and the 2008 Beijing Games, oceans of empty seats were the norm, even at normally high-demand events such as women's gymnastics.
When I traveled to the Games in 2004, I talked with several dozen Greek residents. They spoke in an almost unanimous chorus. They had no interest in the Olympics.
Those empty seats jolted me. During decades of watching the Olympics on TV, I always pictured athletes competing in front of stands packed with loud, emotional fans. Sitting in quiet arenas in Athens and Beijing was bizarre. This was the Olympics. Where was everybody?
When stepping out of the Sochi airport last week, I immediately saw these Games would be different. A long, snaking line waited outside a ticket booth. Most of the women and men in the line were Russians.
On Thursday, I walked into Shayba Arena to watch the United States women's hockey team thrash Switzerland. I expected to see another viewing of that ocean of empty seats. Women's hockey is a tough sell almost anywhere.
The arena was almost full.
Aleksandra Kosterina serves as head of communications for the Sochi Games. She reports most of Sunday's events had at least a 90 percent sellout rate with a similar percentage expected for Monday.
"We expected strong attendance," Kosterina wrote in an email to The Gazette. "We are satisfied with attendance so far. We've seen a number of events that were a complete sell-out like luge, biathlon or figure skating. But these events traditionally are quite high in attendance. Women's hockey on the other hand is new for Russia. That is why we were particularly pleased to witness the great turnout at Shayba."
These Sochi Games face obstacles to selling tickets. The most obvious, and heart-wrenching, trouble arrived when Chechen rebels bombed buses and killed three dozen innocents. The rebels directly tied the bombings to a protest against the Games and promised more bloodshed was on the way. Those threats inspired thousands around the world to remain in the safety of their homes.
The second problem is less gruesome but still real. It's not easy to get to Sochi. Anyone who traveled here from the United States took a long and winding route. Trust me on that one.
Russians are showing no fear and faced no epic journey. So far, they are filling those empty seats.