London watchdog group grills Olympic organizers

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By DANICA KIRKA, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — The London Assembly pounced on Olympics chief Sebastian Coe on Wednesday, demanding answers to whether the public had a fair shot at tickets to the men's 100-meter final and other popular events.

The heated exchanges also hit at many of the big British gripes about the event — from traffic to sponsorships — forcing the smooth-talking games chief into an uncharacteristically defensive stance. The unlikely forum for the sparring was the assembly, an elected watchdog group charged with being a check on the power of London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Tickets proved the flashpoint. Critics of the Olympics believe a disproportionate number of tickets have been sold in higher price brackets, excluding those who can't afford to pay for the most popular events.

Assembly members have been demanding an accounting of how many have been sold so far and at what price. Organizers say it is too difficult, as well as commercially sensitive, to give up the data now.

Dee Doocey, the chair of the assembly committee that examined the ticketing process, did not bother to hide her frustration after Coe again refused a request for the data.

"You are the least transparent organization I have ever come across in the eight years I have been on at the London Assembly!" she said, her voice rising.

Coe kept trying to defend himself, but it didn't end there. The meeting devolved into a roll call of every major problem faced by the London organizing committee, known as LOCOG.

First and foremost, there's the issue over whether organizers should continue to associate themselves with Dow Chemical Co. because of its links to the company accused in the 1984 Bhopal gas leak. Dow bought Union Carbide 16 years after the 1984 accident in the central Indian city of Bhopal that killed an estimated 15,000 people. Dow maintains it was not responsible for the catastrophe, but the company's critics argue its purchase of Union Carbide made the U.S.-based company responsible for groundwater contamination and other issues that linger in India.

After Dow, the assembly moved on to other sponsors. Were McDonald's food offerings in line with the goal of making food at the Olympics sustainable? Would Coca-Cola offer a broad range of beverages and prices, given that no liquids would be allowed through security and into the park?

Coe and games Chief Executive Officer Paul Deighton found themselves constantly being interrupted and at times they weren't even able to complete sentences.

But it was on the question of ticketing that the two leaders are most vulnerable. London's Olympic ticketing process has been slowed by intractable computer problems and huge demand. Organizers first drew outrage by establishing a complicated lottery system in which people blindly registered for tickets and handed over credit card details before they knew what tickets they might get.

The system will lead to full stadiums, even for less popular events. But people were frustrated and the process added to grumbling about huge public expenditures. Britain is paying 9.3 billion pounds ($14.6 billion) for the games at a time of national economic hardship.

The inability of many people to attend has contributed to a souring of the national mood about the whole endeavor.

Coe has said two-thirds of Olympic tickets are being sold for less than 50 pounds ($79). A remaining 4 million tickets will be sold in April.

Organizers have promised a full accounting once it is all done. But Doocey wasn't having it, saying a breakdown "should be available at the hit of a button."

But Coe would not budge.

"I am not going to divert the attention of my team who still have 4 million tickets and revenue targets to meet because that is how we fund the games," he said. "I am not going to take them off that focus to work on every single client group for every single session. We are talking about 1,000 sessions. I am sorry but we are being entirely transparent here."

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Danica Kirka can be reached at http://twitter.com/DanicaKirka

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