Sat | Aug 8, 2020

Tanya Lee | The IAAF World Champs is a crying shame

Published:Friday | October 4, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and her two-year-old son, Zyon Pryce, swathed in the Jamaican flag, celebrate her victory in the women’s 100m final at the nearly empty Khalifa International Stadium at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday.

Ah, Qatar, a place of pristine luxury, oft celebrated globally for boasting one of the top-10 economies based on gross domestic product per capita. Qatar is home to this year’s IAAF World Championships and also home to football’s biggest showpiece event, the FIFA World Cup, in 2022.

The nation of just under 2.6 million inhabitants came up big financially for hosting the World Championships while handing the IAAF promises of a packed stadium and relishing the opportunity to bridge the gap between the Arab World and the West.

But as it turns out, those were empty promises. Attendance has been paltry, with less than 50 per cent of the seats occupied each day. The interest in track and field seems non-existent in Doha. This is a massive fail for the IAAF as athletics was already on a lifeline with the departure of Usain Bolt.

Despite the bright lights and improved television production, the stadium atmosphere itself is visibly lacking no matter the camera angle. After one full year of training and preparation, it must have been anti-climactic for the likes of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Dina Asher-Smith to make their victory laps to a stadium of less than 1,000 fans. To put it into perspective, the capacity of the Khalifa International Stadium is 40,000, but sections have been covered in fabric to bring the capacity down to 21,000. Even then there was an echo.

Complementary scramble

The organisers scrambled to give complementary stubs to thousands of migrant workers from Africa and India. But most shameful of all is that those same migrant workers built the stadium in sweltering heat, some losing their lives in the process.

Qatar is home to a ruthless Kafala system, which is often compared to slavery as migrants hoping for a better life are ruthlessly exploited by unscrupulous employers who ‘sponsor’ their arrival and then refuse to pay for their services.

An Amnesty International report detailed how several hundred migrant workers employed by just three construction companies were forced to return to their home countries penniless because of serious failings in recently introduced dispute settlement schemes in Doha. It’s nothing to celebrate.

Speaking of celebrate, Asher-Smith’s teammate, Beth Dobbin, described her victory lap as heart-breaking. “I watched Dina’s victory lap, and that was a bit heart-breaking because what she did was insane, and there was no one there,” she said. “I feel like she was robbed of that moment.”

IAAF President Sebastian Coe says that the aim was to boost the sport in the Middle East. Track and field as a sport has always suffered from a lack of global appeal and has not yet reached saturation in any part of the world, so to chart a different course altogether and take over 1,200 athletes from over 200 countries into unfamiliar waters is inexcusable.

Temperatures in Doha have been as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In a bid to have a television-ready product, some events have been relegated to midnight. The marathon runners and race walkers competed in such high humidity, some were taken off the course on stretchers and wheelchairs. While provisions were made to cool the stadia for the athletes to perform under more ideal circumstances, visiting fans shied away.

By contrast, football can afford to be in Doha in 2022. It is the globe’s most appealing sport and has almost reached global levels of saturation. But track and field is a far cry away and remains, in many respects, a niche offering. Its fan base doesn’t remotely compare to football’s massive weight, and the gaping hole left by Bolt has, essentially, been widened by Coe and company. This miscalculation is a crying shame.

Tanya Lee has over 10 years’ expertise as a Caribbean sports marketer and is also an athlete manager and publicist.