At the Athletics World Championships in Moscow the stadiums were empty, leaving the athletes disappointed. Critics say this does not bode well for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games or football World Cup in Russia.
As the World Championships in Moscow draw to a close on Sunday, August 18, the overall feeling is one of mild disappointment. Some 33 years after the Summer Olympic Games that were boycotted by Western countries, Russia had set out to show that it can indeed stage big international sporting events. But just a few months before the Winter Olympics in Sochi begin, and four years ahead of the football World Cup, critics wonder: Can it really?
Only 20,000 people were there to watch President Vladimir Putin open the championships in a grand ceremony.
When Jamaican sprinting star Usain Bolt ran to gold, the Luzhniki Stadium, which can seat 81,000, was barely half full. And even Russian favorite, pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, barely managed to fill the ranks.
There was even less interest in the morning events. "Until the high-jump started later in the day, I thought this was just a training session before the real competition," German decathlon silver medalist Michael Schrader recalled. "I could only see about twenty spectators - and there was virtually no applause."
His teammate and European Champion Pascal Behrenbruch put it more drastically: "The atmosphere was the pits. You could have fallen asleep. I think it really can't be that such an event is hosted by a country that has no interest in athletics. It would be better to stage it in the same country over and over again."
Before the championships kicked off, organizers announced they'd sold 80 percent of the tickets. But this week the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) admitted, that a mere 100,0000 tickets were sold - the cheapest ones for only three euros ($4) a piece. The Russian daily "Kommersant" newspaper wrote that the Moscow city administration had given away 240,000 tickets for free to sponsors.
Despite that, the stadiums were all but empty.
Helpless volunteers and recordless competitions
The low spectator turnout managed to spoil even the happiest moments of victory: "It was a bit of a shame that our award ceremony was conducted for an audience of five people and three dogs," said shot-put silver medalist Christina Schwanitz.
Some athletes deplored that it was not only the bad atmosphere in the stadiums that pulled them down. They complained about unfriendly staff, who failed to try to answer basic organizational questions - and if they did, they could barely manage to make themselves understood.
"The organization was terrible. I couldn't understand a word of what the volunteers were trying to say to me. When I asked people to say things in English, they still continue in Russian. That makes me feel like a complete idiot," complained German decathlon athlete Rico Freimuth.
On the upside the shuttle bus service to and from the stadiums worked perfectly - as did all the technical equipment for the competitions.
The lack of world records at the two-week event will hardly help to make the championship more memorable: Usain Bolt remains the fastest man in the world, Yelena Isinbayeva still jumps the highest, Britain's Mo Farah was and is the champion of the 10 kilometer runners and German Robert Harting still throws his discus further than anyone else.
As the German athletes start packing their things and heading home, they may feel comforted by a third place for Germany in the medals table – behind only the United States and host nation Russia.
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