‘The stadium was empty’: World Athletics Championships marred by tiny crowds

As Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce completed her victory lap after once again being crowned as the fastest woman on the planet, she held her two-year-old son and waved to the crowd.

Well, crowd is an exaggeration. There appeared to be only dozens of fans left just minutes after the women’s 100m final, one of the marquee events of the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. Most of them were Jamaican supporters, team officials or Fraser-Pryce family members.

Just before the race, as the lights dimmed for an extravagant laser show, it appeared that as few as 1000 paying fans were in the stands at Khalifa International Stadium on Monday (NZT) to see Fraser-Pryce win her fourth world title.

“I actually did notice that the stadium wasn’t full,” she said. “Even though there were 1000 people in the stands, the two most important people were here to see me compete.”

The lack of fans over the first four days of the event have renewed criticism of the IAAF’s decision to award its showpiece event to a tiny country without a significant track and field fan base and intense heat.

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The open-air stadium is air-conditioned, but the marathon and long race walks are being held after midnight through empty streets.

The IAAF would not comment on the growing reputational damage caused by the empty seats, pushing responsibility on local organisers who issued a statement blaming the poor attendance on a late-night schedule to accommodate global television audiences. It also cited Qatar being boycotted by neighbours, including the United Arab Emirates.

Doha’s hosting has been under question since it was selected by the IAAF in 2014.

However, IAAF President Sebastian Coe can’t blame that decision on predecessor Lamine Diack. Coe was not only a vice president of the governing body at the time but on the evaluation commission of bidders.

Coe said in 2014 that Qatar “put some incentives on the table” including building tracks around the world. A year later, Coe was telling British parliamentarians he was unsure if the bid was clean.

Qatar’s conduct in bidding for the world athletics championships, first unsuccessfully for the 2017 edition, remains under criminal investigation in France. A preliminary charge of “active corruption” was filed in May against Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the chairman of the beIN media group who also runs French soccer team Paris Saint-Germain. He denies wrongdoing. The case focuses on a $3.5 million payment to an IAAF official.

Hours before Fraser-Pryce’s night of glory, Athletics Integrity Unit officials were in the stadium to talk about — among other areas of concerns — potential misconduct in Doha’s bid.

“It is an area that is an area of concern, not only to us, but to others,” AIU head Brett Clothier said, discussing the cooperation with French prosecutors.

When initially bidding for the 2017 worlds, Doha made a bold pledge to the IAAF: “No empty seats.” Every session would be sold out, the prospectus said.

Three days into these championships, the stadium which could fit 40,000 people is yet to be full. Tens of thousands of seats are covered with fabric featuring the competition branding.

Even for the men’s 100-meter final on Saturday night — the centrepiece of the championships — the fans were vastly outnumbered by empty seats.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, third from left, crosses the finish line to win the women's 100m final ahead of Dina Asher-Smith.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, third from left, crosses the finish line to win the women’s 100m final ahead of Dina Asher-Smith.

“The IAAF need to learn and get better, fill up stadiums and make athletics a more interesting sport,” said Akani Simbine, the South African who finished fourth in the 100m final. “That’s the thing they need to figure out.”

Eurosport, which holds Olympics rights across Europe, mocked the lack of crowd for women’s sprint final.

“The Doha crowd roars with approval,” Eurosport tweeted with a GIF of tumbleweed .

Broadcasting from a set in the stadium, former athletes broadcasting on the BBC rounded on the organisers.

“Our governing body has let our athletes down massively,” said Denise Lewis, the heptathlon gold medallist at the 2000 Olympics.

But Dina Asher-Smith was careful not to criticise organisers after sealing silver to become the first British woman to win an individual world sprint medal.

“I definitely wouldn’t call it sad. You shouldn’t be so negative,” Asher-Smith said. “I think that every country has a different kind of culture and bias towards events.”

This is the first time the IAAF has taken its world championships to the Middle East.

“It’s one of the great things about taking athletics to different parts of the world,” Asher-Smith said, “because hopefully we are opening ourselves up to a global audience and dragging in some new fans.”

Just not many, at least, in the country hosting the event.

“The stadium was empty and it’s really disappointing,” said Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, who won world bronze on Sunday. “I was all for bringing athletics to the Middle East and to different environments but maybe we’re not promoting it enough or not promoting it to the right people. It’s very sad.”

Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce stands on the podium after winning the women's 100m final.
Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce stands on the podium after winning the women’s 100m final.

Meanwhile, New Zealand sprinter Zoe Hobbs clocked a time of 23.94 seconds to finish sixth place in her heat in the women’s 200m. 

“It’s pretty cool to step out there on the world stage and I’ve worked pretty hard for this moment,” she said. “Not the best results but just to be here is pretty awesome. I’m stoked to get my first one under way and then learn from this and move from there.”

New Zealand's Zoe Hobbs competes in the women's 200m heats.
New Zealand’s Zoe Hobbs competes in the women’s 200m heats.

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