The IAAF World Championships finally soared last night, looking and feeling more like a world championships of old. It took till day eight of ten, but with a world record push in the women’s 400 hurdles, an epic drive in the men’s 3000 meter steeplechase, and an arcing, come from behind win by the home country hero in the men’s high jump, all performed before a rollicking flag-waving crowd, this Doha version of the IAAF World Athletics Championships truly became a member of the World Champs family of venues.
Throughout the first week, though, a major story line had been the embarrassingly empty Khalifa Stadium. Leading up, the IAAF had been defensive about the lack of ticket sales -reportedly only 50,000 were sold for the full 10 days – as critics pointed to past IAAF President Lamine Diack as having sold the meet to Qatar for personal rather than sporting purposes.
But it will be interesting to see if the wonderful atmosphere of day 8 can be reproduced on the last two days of competition. Because it wasn’t hard to figure why Day 8 stood out. Undoubtedly, it was the result of one man, Qatar’s own Mutaz Essa Barshim, the high jump superstar and 2017 world champion.
In the previous seven days, the only time the crowds really came in numbers was when Kenyan and Ethiopian runners were performing in the distance events. And even then, officials had to paper the stadium (free tickets) to attract them.
As athletics attempts to get beyond the corruption and PED issues that have haunted the sport for so long and address the multiple challenges ahead, one thing to consider is that we don’t have track and field fans, we have track and/or field event fans. Only the most die-hard amongst us enjoy the entire panoply of events.
We saw this most strikingly just a few years ago in Sacramento at the USATF nationals where the penultimate event of the meet was the men’s 100-meter final followed by the 5000 meters. The second the 100 was finished, 98% of the stadium got up and left, leaving only the 5000-meter fans to muster along the rail for the last event of the evening.
So what we had were sprint fans and distance fans commingling. But as if in a centrifuge, they were quickly separated once the sprint fans had their measure and left.
When US national championships and the World Championships, two of the greatest athletics meetings ever, can’t draw casual fans, that’s a sign of a major problem.
The sport is littered with great athletes. Hopefully, the marketing folks at IAAF will come up with some novel solutions and not have to wait for another Barshim in Qatar or Usain Bolt everywhere else to come along to hold the game together between controversies.