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Moscow: magic or misery?

Published:Thursday | July 25, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Hubert Lawrence

By Hubert Lawrence

If the truth be told, there have been concerns about the local promotions of the World Championships long before the current rash of positive drug tests.

None other than the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Lamine Diack, has been urging the Moscow organising committee to do more.

The modest promotional activity led Diack to comment last October, and this April, that more was needed.

In October, he said: "I know the sports facilities you have and I know the sportsmen fostered in Russia ... I think, as far as the very championships and organisation are concerned, there will be no issues here. The biggest challenge for our championships is filling the stadium with spectators."

In an April visit to Moscow, Diack said he's noticed little television advertising promoting the Worlds, compared to the campaigns for the recent University Games, in Kazan, and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

"To successfully host a competition, you need to advertise," Diack said. "You should make every Muscovite know that on August 10 you can come to Luzhniki."

Luzhniki stadium will host the Championships.

In those circumstances, the absence of big name stars doesn't help. The 800 maestro David Rudisha, Vivian Cheriyout and Dayron Robles will all miss Moscow. Rudisha, like Jamaica's Yohan Blake, is injured. Cheriyout won't defend her 5,000 and 10,000-metre titles because she is on maternity leave and Robles is off form and in a dispute with the Cuban federation.

Some even wonder why Moscow was awarded the Championships. The grouse is the long list of positives from Russian athletes. The doubters have argued that a country with such a record shouldn't have been granted the right to host the event.

Despite that, news has come that the last weekend of the meet has been sold out. Maybe Diack's message got through.

I began to wonder if the 2013 World Championships was suffering from post-Olympic blues. After all, the doxology says athletics always suffers a fall-off in public interest after the Games.

Then I looked back in history. Helsinki staged a brilliantly supported Championship in 2005, the season after the Athens Olympics, and there were sessions where fans sat patiently in the rain with nothing to watch. Berlin came a year after the wonderful 2008 Beijing Olympics, and was a sell-out.

While the Finns and the Germans are known to be great fans of sport, those meets prove that a post-Olympic World Championship can be attractive. In fact, there are many Jamaican sports tourists who are making plans for Moscow.

To be fair, the positive tests do cause a crisis of confidence. Article after article now places the question at the feet of the incomparable Usain Bolt. One headline pleaded, 'Usain, please be clean'.

It's a good thing his shoulders are broad. The tall man revived the sport in Beijing and Berlin not only with his speed, but also his engaging persona. If anyone can pull athletics out of the current misery, he can.

The pity is that - certainly in the most recent Jamaican cases - the problem is perception.

The substance that has tripped up Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson is a low-grade stimulant. It's legal in training, but not in competition. That's a far cry from high-grade stuff like steroids, blood doping and human growth hormones. Yet, we all think of all violations in the same light.

As explained in this space last week, the absence of a World Anti-Doping Agency-approved list of supplements makes things tough for all. It's tough for athletes who need big budgets to test everything they ingest. It's hard for fans who struggle to believe what they see.

Finally, it can be hard for promoters when big meets become a hard sell. Stack that on top of the trouble President Diack cited in October and April and it spells trouble.

Hopefully, the world's hard-core track fans will rescue the situation. Empty seats are the worst thing for a special event with no audience to spur performers on. It would be great if the last weekend sell-out got extended to the entire August 10-18 event. The athletes who gather in Moscow for the World Championships deserve it.

Hubert Lawrence has been making notes at trackside since 1980.