Qatar confidently promised there would be “no empty seats” when it first bid for the World Athletics Championships – three days into the 2019 championships that promise rings as hollow as the Doha stadium.
One of the greatest athletes of all time, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, won a record fourth 100 metres title in front of a sparse crowd on Sunday with officials and friends and family of the athletes making up a large proportion of the spectators.
Although Doha hosts a Diamond League meeting, athletics has no real roots in Qatar and the decision to take the World Championships to the Gulf raised eyebrows.
Fans even left before local medal hope Abderrahman Samba had run his heat on Friday in the men’s 400 metres hurdles.
It is not the image the International Association of Athletics Federations and its newly re-elected president Sebastian Coe – who normally has a sure political touch – would have wished for in the first championships since the sport’s huge drawcard Usain Bolt retired after an almost soldout championships in London in 2017.
Fraser-Pryce shrugged off Sunday’s desert of fans but it is not the first time the Jamaican has won world titles in a less than full stadium – the crowd was decidedly thin when she and Bolt triumphed in Moscow in 2013.
“I’m used to having the stands rammed,” commented a bemused Bolt at the time.
That was despite the now disgraced IAAF president Lamine Diack and vice-president Sergey Bubka doing a deal with a Ukrainian oligarch to fly in 2,000 of his employees to populate the stadium.
Diack, who is under investigation in France with the successful bid by Qatar part of the dossier, may take the blame for the Doha debacle but Coe was on the evaluation commission for that bid race.
According to the official figures, over 11,000 spectators filed into the Khalifa International Stadium both on the opening night and then for one of the marquee events, the men’s 100 metres final, on Saturday.
The stadium has a maximum 40,000 capacity but had already had its size reduced to around 20,000 by blocking out an upper tier.
The organisers issued a statement on Monday saying extra efforts would be made to ensure larger crowds during the remaining week of the championships.
“After two solid days of attendance, (70 percent on Day 1 and 67 percent on Day 2), numbers were down on our expectations on Day 3, under 50 percent, which coincided with the start of the working week in Qatar,” it read.
“We are confident that our renewed efforts will encourage the local community to come and witness the stunning performance of the world’s best athletes.”
They added that part of the problem lay with many finals being held late in Qatar to fit global television schedules.
“This impacts on the number of spectators remaining until the end of the session,” the statement said.
‘Athletes deserve people’
The unfilled seats will also raise questions about the atmosphere that can be expected at the football World Cup in three years’ time, although that sport’s reach is greater than athletics.
However, the lack of atmosphere in Doha has left those participating cold.
Canadian sprinter Andre de Grasse, the 100m bronze medallist, said: “It has maybe got to be closer to where everyone’s fan bases are. Qatar is quite far for fans to travel to but I think next year the Olympics (in Tokyo) won’t be like that.”
Others have chipped in with Britain’s 2000 Olympic heptathlon champion Denise Lewis launching a rare broadside at authorities.
“I don’t think it’s right,” she told the BBC. “Our governing body has let our athletes down, massively. I didn’t expect it to be this bad. We want to see people. The athletes deserve people, an energy and an atmosphere to thrive on.”
Track legend Michael Johnson did not put the low attendance down to doping issues within the sport.