Government defends beach volleyball ticket haul

Beach volleyball Beach volleyball tickets were among those listed as unavailable by July 2011

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The government has insisted it is a "coincidence" that it bought a lot more tickets for Olympic beach volleyball than it did for the athletics.

Former Labour sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe asked if it was just an "oddity" that 410 volleyball tickets were bought at a cost of £26,000.

Civil servant Jonathan Stephens said tickets for staff were largely for weekend events and cost up to £90 each.

The event which met those requirements "turns out to be volleyball", he said.

Beach volleyball events will be held in Horse Guards Parade - on Whitehall in central London, home to the UK's civil service - during the Games from 27 July to 12 August. A 15,000 seater stadium will host the sport - which made its Olympics debut at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

Mr Stephens, the top civil servant at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), was giving evidence to the CMS committee about wider issues at the 2012 London Olympics, alongside Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson.

VIP tickets

They had been asked about the government's policy on VIP tickets for the Games.

Mr Stephens said all the top sponsors were entitled to 13,500 tickets - but in the government's case, a decision had been taken not to take up its full allocation.

Start Quote

Can you explain why there seems to be a strong interest in beach volleyball among ministers and civil servants?”

End Quote Gerry Sutcliffe MP

Instead it had bought 8,800 tickets - at a cost of just under £750,000 - roughly 2,300 of which had been allocated "for people who have worked consistently on the Games, to make them the success, over a significant period of time, to purchase at cost value".

Another 2,000 were bought on behalf of host local authorities - like Weymouth - for them to host visiting dignitaries and about 3,300 was available to the government to host guests - most of whom are expected to be "associated very closely" with business promotion efforts at the Olympics.

Any leftover tickets would be returned, he said.

Mr Stephens said tickets bought for staff - who will in turn pay for them - cost between £40 and £90.

But there was laughter on the committee as Mr Sutcliffe asked him: "I don't know if this is an oddity or not - but can you explain why there seems to be a strong interest in beach volleyball among ministers and civil servants?

London 2012 - One extraordinary year

London 2012 One extraordinary year graphic

"The government have bought 410 beach volleyball tickets, costing £26,000, as against only 256 athletics tickets."

Mr Stephens admitted he had thought it an oddity himself - but there was an innocent explanation.

"When we were purchasing tickets for staff to purchase, we obviously thought they were mostly going to be able to go at the weekend or on Fridays.

"Then when you look at what's available at those sorts of price bands, on those sorts of days, most of it turns out to be volleyball. As ever, on these occasions, the explanation is coincidence rather than conspiracy."

'Sticking neck out'

The committee also questioned the decision to double the budget for the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies - from £40m to £81m - announced in December.

Lib Dem Adrian Sanders asked how it could be "possibly justified" at a time of spending cuts elsewhere.

Start Quote

You could do a re-run of the royal wedding on big screen television if you want to advertise our ability to run events”

End Quote Adrian Sanders MP

Culture Secretary Mr Hunt said it was a lot of money - but it was less than China had spent in 2008 - and less than Russia was planning to spend when it hosts the Winter Olympics in 2014.

He said he was "sticking his neck out in a big way" for the opening ceremony - by ignoring the "conventional wisdom that at times of austerity you should rein back on absolutely everything".

But he said he wanted to make the most of "an absolutely unique moment" which would potentially be seen by four billion people worldwide and represented an "extraordinary business opportunity" - attracting tourists, investors and students.

He admitted it was "hard to quantify" the exact benefit but he was sure it would be "extremely positive" for British business and jobs.

Mr Sanders suggested the opening ceremony, for many people, was a "laughable event" - and it was actually the Games as a whole that would bring the benefits.

He said the budget was being doubled for two events - amounting to just a few hours: "You could do a re-run of the royal wedding on big screen television if you want to advertise our ability to run events."

Mr Hunt said it was not "about throwing money at a big party" but about an "incredible investment opportunity in our national reputation".

"There will never be an opportunity like this in our history... to massively strengthen our reputation around the world," he said.

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