Empty seats and ghostly silence have been the sad feature of the world athletics championships in Doha a PR disaster for the sport, the IAAF, Sebastian Coe and Qatar
Moments after the greatest 10.83 seconds of Dina Asher-Smiths life, the British sprinter grabbed a union flag from her mother, Julie, and began a lap of honour to celebrate her world championship 100m silver medal. But as she trotted round the 40,000-seat Khalifa stadium in Doha on Sunday night she was greeted by banks of empty seats and a ghostly silence.
Observers reckoned there were no more than 1,000 people still in attendance and many of them were journalists tapping away to deadline. Asher-Smiths mother later tweeted she had seen more spectators at England Athletics age-group championships in Bedford.
Asher-Smiths teammate Beth Dobbin was even more blunt. I watched Dinas victory lap and that was a bit heartbreaking because what she did was insane and there was no one there, she said. I feel like she was robbed of that moment.
The organisers have since blamed the start of the working week and an event schedule designed for European TV audiences. But that cannot hide a simple fact. These world athletics championships have been a PR disaster for athletics, for the sports president, Sebastian Coe, and for Qatar, a country which has spent the past decade buying up rights to host major events, including the 2022 football World Cup.
Even Denise Lewis, the 2000 Olympic heptathlon champion who is not known for controversial views, has stuck the boot in, telling the BBC: Our governing body has let our athletes down massively. Meanwhile Eurosport, which holds Olympic TV rights across Europe, also mocked the lack of crowd for the womens sprint final. The Doha crowd roars with approval, it tweeted with a gif of tumbleweed.
It is all a far cry from the promises made by Qatar in its first bid for these championships in 2011. No empty seats, the prospectus said, adding that the atmosphere surrounding the world championships will be fantastic.
That was a pledge that always looked spurious. But at least it was made several years ago. Coe, who was on the evaluation commission that inspected Dohas bid for the 2019 championships and is reported to have later voted for it, said he hoped it would be spectacular just a few days ago.
Instead the stadium has often looked at least half empty, even though large parts of it have been covered with fabric and the capacity reduced to 21,000. And that is despite attendances being bolstered by organisers giving thousands of migrant workers from Africa and India free tickets.
On Monday they claimed that attendances had been solid for the first two days, at around 70%, but conceded numbers were down on our expectations on day three with the start of the working week in Qatar.
It added: The challenge we face with a competition schedule that is geared to support global TV viewership is that some finals are not starting until the late evening. This impacts on the number of spectators remaining until the end of the session. We are confident that our renewed efforts will encourage the local community to come and witness the stunning performance of the worlds best athletes.
We know it is a balance and we are pleased global viewers can tune in to watch the live action from Doha.
This, though, was a disaster foretold. After Doha was controversially awarded the championships having offered 23.5m towards extra sponsorship and a promise to build 10 new tracks around the world minutes before the vote in 2014 when it defeated Eugene and Barcelona the former IAAF board member Helmut Digel called it incomprehensible.
However Jos Mara Odriozola, a Spanish IAAF executive well-versed in the lingua franca of sports politics, cut to the heart of the matter. All Doha have is money, he said.
For many sports federations that is enough, whatever the athletes may think. Yet with every passing hour, more of them are voicing discontent. The French decathlete Kevin Mayer, the world record holder, has called the championships a catastrophe. Other athletes have claimed they are being treated as guinea pigs by a governing body that has forced marathon runners and race walkers to compete in 31C heat and high humidity, which has led to some being carried off the course in wheelchairs.
As Belaruss Volha Mazuronak, who finished fifth in the womens marathon in the early hours of Saturday morning, put it: I thought I wouldnt finish. Its disrespect towards the athletes. A bunch of high-ranked officials gathered and decided that it would take the world championships here but they are sitting in the cool and they are probably sleeping right now.
No one doubts that track and field has lost most of the momentum gained from the London 2017 world championships, which were watched by 750,000 people in the flesh and millions more on television. On Sunday evening Adam Gemili admitted it had been a weird event, adding: It makes the British championships look quite good. A colleague, the race walker Tom Bosworth, was even more cutting: The only people carrying this sport are the athletes, he said. The IAAF truly should be ashamed.
However, Coe continues to maintain that track and field must venture into new territories to help spread the word. Tell that to the 1,972 athletes from 208 countries here in Doha. For many this will be the pinnacle of their careers. How sad, then, that it has turned into a nadir for their sport.
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