It was never going to be easy for Lord Sebastian Coe when he became president of the International Association of Athletics Federations.
He took the reins of a sport in a bad place. His campaign acknowledged the need for change to make it more relevant and engaging for new fans, while the previous administration crawled away under the shadow of a corruption scandal; and he inherited a commercial contract which – although altered in part – is widely considered a straitjacket, while the spectre of doping still looms over the sport.
So perhaps his testy reaction to media commentary on poor crowds at the sport’s World Championships in Doha was in part the culmination of all the pressure he lives with day-in-day-out.
Coe laid into the BBC, and in particular one of its star presenters, Gabby Logan, for focusing on empty seats rather than action on the track in an outburst which could and should have been avoided.
Anybody who has attended sports events in Qatar knows that getting bums on seats is a major issue. Except for the ceremonies and other major set pieces – usually involving the presence of a senior member of the ruling family – it has always been a challenge. The domestic football league may have a smattering of highly-paid international players but television coverage often often looks like a ‘spot the fan’ competition; the ATP and WTA events are a struggle for most sessions; and even when Doha hosted the Asian Games back in the day, venues were far from full.
This was well known when the decision to award Doha the Athletics World Championships was made and it was inevitable that gaps in the crowd would become part of the story around the event.
The problem is you can’t have this both ways. When venues are full, as they largely were at the last World Championships in London, it was presented as a triumph which proved the enduring appeal of the sport. The atmosphere created by the full-houses became part of the narrative around the event. It made athletics look great, like a sport wearing its best suit at its most special occasion.
In Doha the reverse is true. In those sessions where the crowds have been particularly poor makes what should be one of the twin peaks of the sport – the other of course being the Olympic Games – look like a bit of a non-event. Empty seats make it appear as though it is unimportant to the more casual viewers which the sport is so anxious to engage with. Appearing to argue that the missing fans are not that important and that the focus be solely on the athletes seems a little disingenuous.
Of course, previous editions of the World Championships and even the track and field programme at the Olympics have not always sold out. Tickets for some sessions for certain disciplines are notoriously difficult to shift. But the fact remains that empty seats are damaging to the brand of the most fundamental of all sports.
Lord Coe’s reaction hasn’t helped. He has fuelled the flames of a story which was always going to be told, keeping it alive far longer than necessary and further keeping the focus of media and public attention away from the heroics being performed by the cream of the world’s athletes for whom Doha 2019 has the potential to be a life-changing experience no matter who’s watching.
Naturally links are being made to the upcoming Fifa World Cup in Qatar but there’s probably far less reason to be concerned.
The scale of global interest in football, its tribal nature and the propensity of fans to travel means that – all being well – empty stadia and lack of atmosphere are unlikely to be a problem. Qatar is a travel hub which is accessible from the corners of the globe and fans will make the journey so long as it is not cripplingly expensive and they can get a drink, both things that the organisers say they’re addressing.
But track and field is not football and everybody involved in the sport has to keep their fingers crossed that the action delivered by the athletes in the final phases of the World Championships keeps sport at the top of the news agenda and that the event will be remembered for medals and records – not absent friends.