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Empty seats overshadow Games, China dominates

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LONDON – Organisers fought to quell growing public outrage on Sunday over empty seats across venues at the London Olympics, where China has laid down an early marker with a world record win in the pool and a commanding early lead in the medals table.

Dispiriting images of rows of vacant rows at football stadiums, Wimbledon, the aquatic centre and beyond has angered Britons who tried and failed to buy tickets in the buildup to the Games having been told they had sold out.

More empty seats were reported on Sunday including at the equestrian dressage at Greenwich Park, despite the draw of Queen Elizabeth’s granddaughter Zara Phillips making an Olympic debut.

Heavy rain after a hot, dry spell also put a dampener on outdoor events on the second day of full sporting contest, as did the announcement that Uzbek gymnast Luiza Galiulina was provisionally banned from the Games for a positive drugs test.

Olympic organisers launched an urgent inquiry into the seating fiasco to nail down precisely who had not taken up their places and why, given the degree of public outcry.

“It is a shame this happened but we are going to do everything we can to make sure we fill up those stadia,” said Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the British minister responsible for the Olympics.

“I was at the Beijing Games in 2008 and one of the lessons we took away from that was that full stadia create the best atmosphere, it’s best for the athletes, it’s more fun for spectators and it has been an absolute priority.”

The embarrassment took some of the shine off the Games, where sport has began in earnest after a surreal and exuberant opening ceremony on Friday night which thrilled Britain but baffled much of the world because of its arty eccentricity.

China jumped to the head of the rankings with four gold medals on Saturday, the first full day of competitive sport at the July 27-August 12 tournament.

CHINESE DOMINATION

China added to that tally on Sunday when Guo Wenjun won the women’s 10 metre air pistol shooting gold from France’s Celine Goberville. And still to come is the women’s synchronised three-metre springboard diving final, where few would bet against victory for He Zi and Wu Minxia.

China’s Yi Siling became the first gold medallist of the Games in the 10-metre air rifle while compatriot Wang Mingjuan extended a 10-year unbeaten international record to win the women’s 48-kg weightlifting crown.

Chinese swimmers Sun Yang and Ye Shiwen also took gold on Saturday, with 16-year-old Ye wiping more than a second off the world record in the women’s 400 metre individual medley final.

Sun, who became the first Chinese man to win an Olympic swimming title to take gold in the men’s 400 freestyle, is overwhelming favourite to win the 1500 and is also targetting the 200, where he will square off against American Ryan Lochte.

Lochte grabbed the headlines on Saturday by eclipsing compatriot Michael Phelps in the 400 individual medley final and replacing him as the world’s best all-round swimmer.

Lochte already has three gold medals from his two previous Olympics but is primed for a bigger haul this time with three more individual events and at least one relay still to come.

“I’m ready to rock this Olympics,” the 27-year-old declared.

For Phelps, things can only get better after the man who swept eight golds at Beijing four years ago was forced into fourth position and missed out on a medal for the first time at the Games since he was a 15-year-old in Sydney in 2000.

The U.S. face a tough task in the 4×100 metres freestyle relay against an Australian team boasting the fastest two men in the world.

But there should be a medal of some colour for Phelps, who is bidding to add three to his tally to overtake Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record haul of 18.

BRITAIN MEDAL-LESS

Like Phelps, host nation Britain is still seeking its first medal after world champion Mark Cavendish was outmanoeuvred and upstaged in the cycling road race by Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov.

Britain’s best hope is in the pool where Rebecca Adlington defends her 400 freestyle title against Italian Federica Pellegrini and world number one Camille Muffat of France.

But Britain also has chances in the women’s cycling road race where holder Nicole Cooke faces Italian world champion Giorgia Bronzini and Dutchwoman Marianne Vos, who is hoping finally to land gold after five consecutive world championship silvers.

By lunchtime on Sunday, the Italian team were second in the medals table with golds in archery and fencing.

Their men’s archery team beat the top-ranked United States by a single point on the last arrow of the final and the fencers swept all three medals in the women’s individual foil.

Day Two also sees the latest incarnation of the U.S. basketball “Dream Team”, this time featuring LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, beginning their title defence against France.

Tennis world number two Novak Djokovic of Serbia begins his quest for singles gold against Italy’s Fabio Fognini.

Britain’s Andy Murray returns to the court where he lost the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer this month for a first-round match against Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka.

Federer survived a scare in his opening Olympic singles match against Colombia’s Alejandro Falla on Saturday before prevailing 6-3 5-7 6-3.

Serena Williams also breezed past Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic in straight sets, with U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama cheering her on.

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