GWANGJU -- The 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships kicked off Friday, bringing athletes and tourists to Gwangju from all over the world, but the venues were far from packed and a number of people expressed disappointment over the number of empty seats.
Advance ticket sales were high enough to satisfy the organizers, despite initial concerns that swimming isn’t a popular spectator sport in South Korea.
“As the ticket sales have already reached 85 percent, I can confidently predict we will achieve our aim,” Sung Baik-you, a spokesperson for FINA World Championships Gwangju, told The Korea Herald. Sung also held a spokesperson post during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
But the empty seats did not go unnoticed.
“I feel bad (to see so many seats empty). I wish more people would pay attention to the event and come to watch. Still some comments on the internet express doubts and ask why (the event) is being held in Korea,” said Park Na-rin, a 22-year-old student at Gwangju Women’s University.
At 11 a.m. Friday, the first competition -- the 1-meter men’s springboard diving preliminary -- started at Nambu University Municipal Aquatics Center, setting the mood for the 76 games in six disciplines scheduled to play out in the coming days. The place was noticeably less than full during the three-hour event.
According to the event’s organizing committee, the turnout during the morning hours --about 3,800 -- reflected only 60 percent of the number of tickets sold.
“As swimming is not a sport Korea is strong in, we have had some difficulties in garnering attention from our citizens. It’s important that the audience actually shows up to the games, and preferably stays throughout the games. I think that is the true way to enjoy sports games,” the spokesperson said.
Yet the diving event proceeded without a hitch, and Korea’s own diving prodigy Woo Ha-ram made a strong showing.
Woo Ha-ram (Yonhap)
The fans seemed to enjoy every minute, cheering on their compatriot from the stands.
Sitting in the audience with about a dozen toddlers and watching the preliminary games with excitement was Koh Jung-seok, 40, a preschool teacher based at a local church.
“I’m proud that Gwangju is holding another international event, following the Summer Universiade in 2015,” Koh said. “I’m hoping the Korean athletes make it into the top rankings, and maybe even win the gold medal. But even if they don’t, I’ll be rooting for them.”
The first day of the swimming competition coincided with Chobok, the first of the three hottest summer days in Korean tradition, and outside temperatures reached 28 degrees Celsius. Roadside sprinklers sprayed out water and “heat shelters” provided a place where tourists could escape the sizzling weather.
Four games, including preliminary diving and artistic swimming events, took place on the first day of the championships.
Opening ceremonies started at 8:20 p.m. at May 18 Democracy Square and at Kwangju Women’s University and drove home this year’s event slogan, “Dive into peace.”
By Choi Ji-won (firstname.lastname@example.org)