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Low turnout at Worlds a cause for concern

Qatar's critics are pointing out the poor attendance at the athletics showpiece event to highlight the lack of sports culture.
Sparsely Populated Stands At The Khalifa International Stadium Has Invited Criticism From Many Quarters
Sparsely-populated stands at the Khalifa International Stadium has invited criticism from many quarters. Photo: Mohammed Dabbous

Dwindling crowd at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, after the first two days which coincided with the weekend, has caused a lot of embarrassment to the local organisers as well as to the top officials of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
With some of the top athletes too expressing their anguish over their plight of performing in front of sparse crowd, the organisers have gone into damage-control mode while intensifying their efforts to attract more crowd.

“After two solid days of attendance, (70 per cent on Day 1 and 67 per cent on Day 2), numbers were down (less than 50 per cent) on Day 3, which coincided with the start of the working week in Qatar. We’re confident that our renewed efforts will encourage the local community to come and witness the stunning performances of the world’s best athletes,” said a Local Organising Committee (LOC) spokesman.

However, there is a general feeling among the local population that better scheduling would have ensured more attendance.

“With all the finals scheduled to start after 8pm, it’s difficult for families with school-going children to attend the Championships on week days,” said a Doha resident.

The LOC spokesman too endorsed this, saying, “The challenge we face with a competition schedule that is geared to support global TV viewership, is that some finals are not starting until the late evening. This impacts on the number of spectators remaining until the end of the session,” he said.
“We know it’s a balance and we’re pleased global viewers can tune in to watch the live action from Doha. We’re confident with our additional communications, we’ll see more attendees for longer periods,” he added.

However, the IAAF is clearly pointing its finger at the LOC’s poor marketing strategy and not willing to give in to the scheduling factor.
“I would blame it on poor marketing,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe told Inside Qatar.

“The success of any sporting event largely depends on its marketing and build-up campaigns,” he added.

Travelling fans and media also complained about ‘unfriendly’ security personnel, who have transformed the Khalifa International Stadium premises into a fortress, denying access to vehicles anywhere near the stadium, forcing them to walk in the hot and humid weather. Some of the European fans were heard complaining about the poor public transport system too.

A section of the Western media used this factor to cast aspersions on Qatar and some of them even raised doubts on the success of future mega sports events in the country.

“That’s quite natural. They’ve have been waiting for an opportunity and we offered that to them. We should’ve been more careful in our planning and professional in our approach,” said a veteran Qatari sports administrator who wished to remain anonymous.

Looking back, how differently Qatar could’ve approached the situation? Inside Qatar spoke with a cross section of the audience and most of them had very concrete suggestions.

“First of all, the Metro line to Khalifa Stadium should’ve been opened. That would’ve sorted out the public transport woes we’re facing. To take a taxi we’ve to walk a lot as the police are not allowing the taxis to come anywhere near the stadium,” said one of them.

Of course, most of the local fans blamed the poor scheduling.

“In Qatar more than 60 per cent of the office-goers and others start work quite early, say between 6 to 8am. Even most of the schools start by 7am. How can we and our children stay late at the stadium to watch the finals, which are scheduled after 9pm and going on till 11pm?” asked another.
“One of the best options was to have the finals before 9pm and the heats and qualifying rounds after that,” he said.

He said it would have been better had the Ministry of Education declared a one-week holiday for the schools.

“It’s only a matter of five working days, sandwiched between two weekends. The ministry should’ve given special holidays for the schools. Then we would’ve stayed on and I’m sure many others also would’ve,” he added.

Having said that, like many other international sports events in Qatar, maybe except football, the patronage by the local community continues to be very poor and it is indeed very disheartening too.

And on top of that, the “political blockade” by some of Qatar’s neighbouring countries too contributed towards thin attendance.

“Our vision was for a first World Championship in the Middle East that would welcome the world and connect to new fans. Despite facing unique challenges as hosts, in terms of the political blockade, that ambition remains,” said the LOC spokesman.

With just three years left for the FIFA World Cup 2022, Qatar will have to learn from their mistakes and take corrective steps to avoid repeating the same. There are a couple of big events, including the ANOC World Beach Games and the FIFA Club World Cup, lined up ahead of the real big test in 2022. It is important to acknowledge mistakes and also ask some tough questions to assess what went wrong and what could be done to do things better.