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Empty Seats In Sochi Draw Attention At Downhill Showcase Event Of Winter Olympics

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Spectators sit in the stands at the Alpine ski course before the start of the men's downhill at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. | ASSOCIATED PRESS

By Mark Trevelyan

ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 9 (Reuters) - The cowbells clanged and the horns blared out, but the sight of hundreds of empty seats put a slight damper on the atmosphere at the men's downhill race on Sunday, traditionally one of the highlights of the Winter Olympics.

For host nation Russia, lacking a medal contender and not normally part of the World Cup ski circuit, it was always going to be tough to recreate the intensity and excitement that accompanies races in countries like Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

"The downhill is the king of the sport so I don't know what's going on. The Russians have no downhill skiers, that's the problem here," said Austria's 1980 Olympic champion Leonhard Stock, surveying stands that were more than half-empty only minutes before the scheduled start of the race.

While late arrivals filled most of the 7,500-capacity Rosa Khutor alpine venue, there were still hundreds of unfilled seats at either end of the tribune.

Russian Olympic organisers on Sunday admitted more than 10 percent of ticket-holding fans missed their competitions on the first day of the Games on Saturday, but said it was due to late arrivals and not necessarily because of tight security. It was not clear if travel delays were a factor on Sunday.

While the world's top skiers have been full of praise for the set-up in Rosa Khutor, Austria's Max Franz said there was no comparison with the fervent crowds at the top venues in his native country and Switzerland.

"You can't compare the atmosphere with Kitzbuehel or Wengen," he told Reuters. "In Wengen it's crazy, in Kitzbuehel there are masses of people. I'm not disappointed, that's just how it is. The more people, the cooler."

American skier Marco Sullivan told Reuters: "I think it may be a little bit more subdued (but) it seems like people are excited."

Bjoernar Hoeistad was one of a highly visible contingent of Norwegian fans, some sporting Viking horns and with their faces painted in the colours of the national flag, a blue cross edged with white against a red background.

Cheered by compatriot Kjetil Jansrud's bronze medal, they clanged their bells with gusto, but Hoeistad was a little disappointed with the decibel count.

"It could be better, the noise level when the athletes come down the hill - that would make it more fun," he said.

But fellow-Norwegian Ivar Bogeberg, watching with his wife Zhanna and their daughter, was impressed as he surveyed the stands.

"We've been here some years before when there was nothing, only a small restaurant. Everything has changed," he said.

"This is not like Russia. Everything goes smoothly." (Editing by Ed Osmond)

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