When Usain Bolt runs, he draws energy from the crowd. That’s been tough to do in Moscow.
The world championships have struggled to draw track fans to the Luzhniki Stadium, the same venue that hosted the 1980 Olympics. Even with a reduced seating capacity and thousands of free tickets handed out, the locals in the Russian capital seem to have better things to do.
"Yeah, I noticed," said Bolt, who won the 100 meters Sunday. "Not every country is about track and field, a lot of countries are about football. It’s my duty, and every other athlete here, to compete at your best so next time there’s a full stadium."
Organizers released official attendance figures Tuesday, saying 40,461 spectators — a debatable listing — watched Bolt reclaim his 100 world title in 9.77 seconds. They said it was the highest attendance figure for track and field in Russia since the 1980 Olympics.
Crowds at the morning sessions at past world championships were often underwhelming, but in Moscow they have been abysmal — despite some tickets selling for as low as $3.
And Bolt isn’t the only one to have noticed.
"You seem to be in a training session. This is not a healthy environment for us," said Mexican distance runner Diego Estrada, who came up with an idea to help organizers fill seats and also ease the congestion in his hotel lobby. "I would propose to bring all the people from the Cosmos to the stadium."
Although track and field has taken a hit by recent doping scandals, the sport still has Bolt as its headliner. And it was he who electrified the 2009 worlds in Berlin by breaking his own world records in the 100 and 200.
At last year’s London Olympics, Bolt had some local help in Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, but he was still the main attraction and helped draw in the packed crowds for every session.
Those are just distant memories now.
"It’s dead. It’s like night and day from London," Dominican hurdler Felix Sanchez said. "There’s no atmosphere."
The Luzhniki Stadium normally has room for more than 80,000 fans, but with large video screens and a huge area set aside for the world media, the capacity was greatly decreased. Add to that massive tapestries covering several sections of seats in the upper decks, and the stadium was reduced to 43,000 over the weekend and 34,000 since.
And still, the red, orange and yellow seats glitter through the night crowds, and in most cases sit baking in the morning sun.
Tuesday’s night session appeared to draw the biggest crowd so far, probably because Yelena Isinbayeva was competing in the pole vault.
The Russian great didn’t disappoint, winning her third world title and drawing roars every time she took off down the runway. Still, several thousand had left by the time she missed her final attempt at 16 feet, 7 inches, which would have been a world record.
Sadly for organizers, Isinbayeva can’t compete every day.
Some have blamed the lack of advertising around the city for the lack of attendance, but Ukrainian pole vault great Sergei Bubka said he thought it might just be the nice weather keeping people out in the sun rather than in a huge stadium.
Maybe both are true, but neither has stopped about 1,000 Ukrainian fans from showing up for just about every session.
"It’s all perfect here and we are cheering for Ukraine, and for Russians as well," said Alexander Ksyonz, a 19-year-old student from Khmelnitsky in western Ukraine.
Ksyonz was sitting in one of the two large sections of Ukrainian fans on opposite sides of the stadium, decked out in their blue or yellow shirts. He said his trip was paid for by a sponsor.
Another Ukrainian student, 22-year-old Viktor Shamur, said he came to Moscow for the entire nine-day competition. Not many locals, however, are following his lead.
"Unfortunately," Shamur said, "Russians are not that active."