‘We witnessed the greatest number of athletes, the highest level of performances and largest stadium audiences ever seen across the event’s 16 editions.’
Lord Sebastian Coe, IAAF President, December 2017.
The 2017 World Athletics Championships and World Para Athletics Championships were awarded to London in November 2011; it was their fourth bid to host the Championships in just 15 years. The low point had been the ill fated Picketts Lock debacle when London had been awarded the hosting rights for 2005, only to pull out due to a lack of funding to build the required stadium (Helsinki picked up the pieces and hosted the event).
Securing the 2012 Olympics provided a massive shot in the arm for British Sport; not just in relation to participation and audience numbers, but also as proof they could organise big events. With the Olympic Stadium (almost) ready for action, the IAAF forgave London for 2005 and gave them the big tick for 2017.
Lord Coe’s quote above was part of an impact study into the success of London 2017. 705,000 tickets were sold for the World Championships with a further 305,000 sold for the World Para Championships, both attendance records. It was Usain Bolt’s swan song, Mo Farah’s track goodbye; the Championships were on an all time high.
Back to 2011 and as well as London, two other cities declared an interest in the 2017 event. Barcelona pulled out quite early which left Doha, the capital of Qatar, as the only alternative. In a move that seems laughable now, Doha pledged in their bid prospectus that there would be ‘No Empty Seats’ and that every session would be sold out.
Doha had hosted the 2006 Asian Games (45 countries competing in 39 sports) and on the back of that, submitted a bid for the 2016 Olympics, losing out to Rio. Qatar had hit the jackpot the year before by winning the rights to the 2022 Football World Cup, but London would take the spoils this time around. Doha went straight back in and bid for the 2019 version, beating Barcelona and Eugene (USA) in the vote which took place in 2014.
‘Our governing body has let our athletes down massively.’
Denise Lewis, British heptathlon gold medalist at the 2000 Olympics.
The Championships started last Friday at the 40,000 seater Khalifa International Stadium. On the first night, the Woman’s marathon started at 11.59pm local time. Despite that start time, temperatures still hit 30C throughout the race and humidity was consistently around 80%. Kenya’s Ruth Chepngetich won in 2hrs, 32 mins, 43 secs before collapsing while performing her post-race media duties. Her winning time was the slowest ever in the World Championships and 15 mins slower than her personal best. 28 of the 68 athletes who started dropped out during the race. There were similar medical issues for the men’s and women’s 50 km walks the following night.
Inside the stadium, there are rows and rows of empty seats; actually, make that sections and sections of empty seats. Official figures say that over 11,000 attended on the opening night, as well as the second night, when the men’s 100 metres final took place, but on the third night, when the women’s 100 metres final took place, there are estimates that there were more like 1,000 spectators there.
Apart from the issues of conditions and attendances, allegations of corruption in relation to Doha 2019 continue to be investigated, just as they do with the 2022 World Cup.
It’s less than four months since Michel Platini was arrested in relation to that decision and despite the call being made to award that tournament to Qatar almost 9 years ago, the controversy has not dimmed. Thankfully, from a player welfare perspective, that tournament will be held in November and December, which will mean cooler conditions that the athletes have this week.
Supporters say that bringing these global events to Qatar widens the appeal of those sports, but London 2017 vs Doha 2019 is like a boxer knocking out their opponent with one punch; it’s a no-contest. From the heights of the packed London Stadium to the depths of the deserted Khalifa International Stadium, two years seems like a lifetime. Greed has seen a global sporting event be talked about for all the wrong reasons. Although we can’t change this week, let’s hope FIFA’s big show doesn’t suffer the same fate in three years time.
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