DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — Despite triumphs on the track, Qatar has come under fire for its hosting of the World Athletics Championships with questions raised over Doha’s ability to deliver the football World Cup successfully in three years’ time.
Perhaps the most stinging off-track criticism of the 10-day event which concludes Sunday was sparked by the spectacle of a near-empty stadium during the opening days, raising fears for attendances in 2022.
“It’s a classic mega-event failing, believing that ‘if you build it, fans will come’,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Britain’s Salford University.
Crowds at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and the 2004 Games in Athens also failed to meet organizers’ expectations despite ambitious stadium construction, he noted.
International Association of Athletics Federations chief Sebastian Coe has come under fire for the dismal crowds that turned out in Doha to watch blue-riband events including the men’s and women’s 100 meters.
“The crowd is an easier subject to talk about rather than some of the more insightful stuff around the events,” said Coe, who attacked what he viewed as negative media coverage.
Spectator numbers improved as the week wore on after at least one large state-funded organization offered staff free tickets for the Khalifa International Stadium.
“It totally felt different, there was a lot of energy,” said former 1,500m world champion Jenny Simpson on Thursday after the American won her heat.
‘Reasons to be there’
Despite Western diplomats warning Qatar would be “judged harshly” for missteps during the athletics, Chadwick said Doha would be unfazed by criticism of meager crowds.
The country instead sees the Championships and World Cup as a means of bolstering security, he said.
“Even if nobody turned up to watch the athletics, it doesn’t matter. Qatar has mitigated the threats it faces by making itself visible, relevant and important,” said Chadwick.
Qatar is embroiled in a bitter two-year dispute with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates which accuse Doha of backing Iran and radical Islamists.
They have cut direct transport links, closed airspace to Qatari aircraft and restricted their citizens from visiting over the claims, which Doha denies.
By hosting such events, Qatar “has a degree of protection against some of the threats,” Chadwick said, adding that the 2015 World Handball Championship and the 2016 cycling Road World Championships were also poorly attended.
FIFA would now seek clarity about Doha’s ticketing strategy following the sight of a near-empty stadium on some days at the athletics, he added.
“People want to know — is there going to be somewhere nice to stay, can they buy a beer?” Chadwick said.
“What kind of event ecosystem are they constructing around that ticketing strategy? You’ve got to give people reasons to be there.”
Qatar World Cup organizers declined to comment on the ticketing challenges at the athletics but sought to head off fears around the World Cup, including alcohol prices in the conservative Gulf monarchy.
Officials also sought to reassure LGBT fans their safety would be assured as they showed off rapidly evolving World Cup infrastructure to visiting media ahead of the athletics.
Another recurring issue was the heat in the road races, with some competitors berating organizers for the sweltering temperatures and humidity during the marathons and race walks that were held outside the air-conditioned stadium.
Canada’s Lyndsay Tessier, who placed ninth after 28 of her 68 rivals dropped out of the women’s marathon, told AFP it was “really scary and intimidating and daunting” seeing competitors collapse.
Among those to go down was Israeli marathoner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, one of the country’s leading athletes, who collapsed at around 20 miles (32 kilometers) while she was in fifth place.
Her failure to finish the race hurt her chances of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
World Cup organizers insisted to visiting media that 2022 will not be dogged by high temperatures as it will be staged in the winter months and played in air-conditioned stadiums.
Championships spectators faced grim traffic jams across Doha with many key roads and junctions undergoing construction, although competitors and VIPs received police escorts.
Congestion surged when the Al-Sadd football team hosted Saudi outfit Al-Hilal at home on Tuesday, just minutes away from the Khalifa Stadium. It also highlighted that soccer is more popular than athletics among Qataris, despite the fact that thousands of locals packed the stadium to see home hero Mutaz Essa Barshim retain his high jump title on Friday.
Pressure is also mounting on the authorities to open all 37 metro stations, of which only 13 are currently operational, by the promised New Year deadline.
Chadwick said Qatar was “skating on thin ice” following the challenges of the World Championships.
“They have to get the World Cup right otherwise, after 2022, there’s going to be a question about what happens next,” he said.
“If sports governing bodies walk away saying ‘Qatar no more’, then that does expose Qatar again to geo-political vulnerability.”