Disappointing crowds watch first day of IAAF World Champs in Doha and marathon runners melt but at least the stadium air-con works

Rarely has the venue for a major athletics event been subjected to such scrutiny. Fears ranged from red-hot temperatures to potentially paltry crowds. Never mind the athletes, would the people of Doha and the Khalifa International Stadium rise to the occasion and deliver a great event?

British 400m runner Martyn Rooney is a veteran of eight IAAF World Championships and has experienced plenty of hot host cities over the years. “But this is on a different level,” he warned.

It is certainly true on the streets of the Qatari capital but inside the stadium the air-con system – with large cooling pipes circling the track and smaller fans under spectator seats – really does work. At about 6pm, for example, it was 34C in Doha but a more tolerable 25C inside the Khalifa Stadium.

It was a different story in the women’s marathon, though. Despite starting the race at midnight on the city’s Corniche promenade, it was impossible to create the same kind of microclimate as inside the stadium and there was mild carnage as runners struggled in temperatures of 32.7C with 73% humidity. Britain’s Charlie Purdue was among the many athletes to drop out on a course that was also bereft of security and fencing to keep spectators off the course. Not that there were many.

Back in the main arena, there were plusses and minuses. Commentary from Geoff Wightman and Katharine Merry with Iwan Thomas in the in-field is a tried-and-trusted formula. The only problem is that the acoustics are not ideal and I could barely make out much of what they were saying from my press seat about 20 metres from the finish line.

The AW seating position also featured what is commonly described in football or theatre circles as “a restricted view”. We basically could not see most of the action on the first bend or the majority of the high jump run-ups due to a stairway and bridge used for athletes to wearily trudge up off the track en route to the mixed zone.

General organisation in the stadium was not brilliant either. Then again it rarely is on the first day of a major championship due to teething problems. Spectators were frustrated not to be able to bring water into the venue (flags were also banned although a number made it in), whereas some female fans were frustrated by delays at the security controls because there weren’t enough female staff to frisk them.

Not that there were many spectators anyway. In perhaps the most disappointing – yet predictable – aspect of the first session of these championships, the arena was barely half full.

The top tier of seating around the venue was covered up – with the canvas sheets ironically carrying the words “reaching new heights” – and plenty of other seats were empty. Transport to the stadium is not easy, which does not help. Usain Bolt’s absence is also a factor.

For most of the evening this created an underwhelming atmosphere. The noise level rose during 5000m and steeplechase heats, however, with the crowd rising even more to appreciate one of the finest moments in IAAF World Championships history as Braima Dabo of Guinea-Bissau helped an exhausted Jonathan Busby of Aruba across the 5000m line in 18:10. It was sportsmanship at its finest and reminiscent of Derek Redmond being helped around the track by his father at the 1992 Olympics.

To be fair, there were also no finals at the Khalifa Stadium to attract fans. The organisers have removed morning sessions from the programme, so Friday evening’s action was basically a traditional morning session of heats and rounds but moved into an evening slot.

For many years it has always been a challenge to fill seats at morning sessions. But there will be no excuses for Doha if the stadium is half empty again when the track and field finals begin on Saturday evening.

As for fans watching on television, there were some minor innovations during the first session. During the 100m heats viewers were given a sprinter’s eye view of the action, for example, courtesy of small cameras on the start line that caught the expression on the athletes’ faces.

I have a feeling the presentation team might be keeping their main tricks under their sleeve until the track and field finals begin. There is a promise that onscreen graphics will help guide confused spectators through the combined events in particular.

So what to make of day one in Doha? From the half-full stadium to only being able to see half of the action on the first bend, it was far from perfect and it’s hard not to draw comparisons with the busier championships in London two years ago and the promise of a vibrant event in Eugene in 2021.

Thing is, as the organisers, athletes and spectators get set for the second evening session of the championships, will they be treating the show so far as a glass that is half empty or half full? With a complete programme of track and field finals yet to come, surely the latter.

Check out the dedicated Doha 2019 section on our website here.

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