Another year, another bizarre venue for a major global sporting event. Nick Powell, Print Sport Editor, reflects on the strange World Athletics Championships that were Doha 2019.
Imagine your name is Dina Asher-Smith. You have got up early and trained for hours every day, competed in countless events (so many being mundane qualifiers), to make history.
For almost your entire life, you have trained with a World Championship medal in mind. Something not achieved by a Briton in your event for 36 years, you have come fifth twice, fourth once, in pursuit of this goal.
Typically, articles that start like this now go on to describe some freak injury, chaotic disqualification or unthinkable mistake. But for Asher-Smith, none of these things happened.
All the preparation, the hard work and dedication paid off. Asher-Smith made history with a lightning run of 10.83, the fastest 100m by any British woman in history, the first sprint medal for a British woman at a World Championships since 1983.
She finished second behind the incomparable Shelly-Ann Fraser Price, but it was nonetheless a sensational result and she rightly set off for a lap of honour.
Alas, and here’s the catch, it was to be a lap of honour to an empty, in the words of one journalist, “dead” stadium. Sean Ingle of The Guardian, believed that no more than 1,000 were in attendance, including fellow journalists.
The last time a venue this small had been used for a World Championships in athletics, there were just two events. After a capacity reduction which saw the top section blanked off to not make the emptiness look as bad, it was the smallest venue in the history of the competition.
Though attendances in Moscow (2013) and Beijing (2015) had been criticised during the searingly hot days, people had come out in force during the nighttime sessions.
What happened that night in Doha was unprecedented. The biggest prize in Women’s sprinting, one of the biggest events in World Sport, watched by a crowd where the only hint of an even half full block was the press box.
For a championship lasting the same amount of time, London 2017 sold 14 times more tickets. Within a month of the tickets going on sale for that event (a year before it took place), 200,000 seats had been requested for the Men’s 100m final. Just 11,300 attended the same event in Doha.
For Dina Asher-Smith and all the other history makers, this was not a venue for deafening cheers, it was as if Athletics was some kind of alternative, little-known sport, not one of the most popular in the World.
But aside from all the attendance bashing, there are vastly more positive arguments. Isn’t this the perfect way to boost athletics in the Middle East? Indeed, the minimal ticket sales allowed free tickets for (some) schoolchildren.
The reality though, is that there is a reason for such poor attendances at Athletics events. Qatar is a country not built for hosting sporting events. Its searing heats throughout the year, lack of passion or interest in sport and poor human rights record (albeit an improving one), mean that some events just don’t work.
During the Women’s Marathon in the early stages of the event, nearly half of all competitors had to pull out with heat exhaustion. That’s in spite of the fact the race began at midnight local time.
The air conditioned stadium where the other events were held was reasonably successful, but even despite this the Championships had to be held in October, over two months after they are usually held.
In 2022, the Football World Cup will have to be held in Winter. The effect on domestic football across Europe will be one of complete chaos, regardless of how well prepared teams are for it.
There is no point making accusations or speculating about why or why not Qatar has won the right to host so many sporting events but when you look at the quality of their facilities, and their organisers’ passion to bring sport to the Middle East it is understandable why they are in the conversation.
But first the UCI World Road Cycling Championships three years ago, now Athletics and football in three years time are naturally met by the same response. Why?
The first two events listed have had a common theme, as Jamie Finch-Penninger put it in his article about the cycling titled The highlights and lowlights of Doha, there’s “No crowds, no atmosphere… lots of money and centigrade”
It’s hard to see how attendances will be so poor for the Football World Cup in 2022, given how popular the sport is and how people have always flocked to the World Cup, but for Dina Asher-Smith and her fellow athletes, this venue has proved to be one to forget.