She should have been cheered by thousands of applauding fans as she set off on her victory lap, but new world 100 meter champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was instead greeted by empty seats and eerie quietness at the World Athletics Championships in Doha.
The 32-year-old Jamaican beat Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith to regain the title she won in Beijing in 2015, but unlike four years ago, there was hardly anyone inside the 40,000-seat Khalifa stadium to witness her crowning moment.
The scenes of Fraser-Pryce and Asher-Smith, draped in their national flags, parading in front of empty stands led to international outcry over the lack of spectators at athletics’ most prestigious event outside the Olympics.
The attendance for day one was about 12,000, including about 2,000 guests, according to organizers. In comparison, 705,000 tickets were sold overall for the 2017 World Championships in London.
For journalist Alek Dzieciolowski, who is attending his fifth World Championships, the low attendances are something he’s not experienced before.
“There’s no comparison,” Dzieciolowski told CNN. “The first thing is that it’s the lowest audience ever.
“The second thing is that the audience that is in the stadium doesn’t understand the athletics.”
The decision to host the event in Doha was seen as a trial run for football’s FIFA World Cup, which will be played across Qatar in 2022.
With new stadia and infrastructure being built to cope with the influx of fans and competitors, the World Athletics Championships offered a good opportunity for Qatar to demonstrate this new sporting outlook to the wider world.
However, the backdrop of empty seats and scattered fans has not been a good look, but the local organizing committee has blamed the working week and requirement to appeal to international audiences for the poor attendances.
“After two solid days of attendance, (70% on Day 1 and 67% on Day 2), numbers were down on our expectations on Day 3, under 50%, which coincided with the start of the working week in Qatar,” it said in a statement.
“We are confident that our renewed efforts will encourage the local community to come and witness the stunning performance of the world’s best athletes.
“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.”
In Doha’s initial bid to host the World Athletics Championships, it claimed viewers would see “no empty seats” at events.
In an effort to reduce the gaps, vast cloths have covered large swathes of seats while organizers have given free tickets to migrant workers to bolster numbers.
But while the low attendances have still been very obvious to the viewer, some athletes have suggested cultural differences may be responsible.
“Every country has different cultures and if you’re racing in the Caribbean, that would have been packed out for the sprints,” said Asher-Smith.
“If you were racing in Germany, everybody would have been gathered around the throws, the discus or the javelin.
“And you saw for the 10 kilometers, the fans came out, the Ethiopian fans, the Kenyan fans, so I think different events just do better in different countries.”
Will Claye – USA’s Olympic triple jump silver medalist – believes that while attendances may be low, just the opportunity to take athletics to different areas of the world will help it grow in popularity.
“I think it’s great to bring track and field into places that may not already know about it,” the 28-year-old said.
“We’re exposing people to the sport. Anyone that sees the sport for the first time is going to love it.”