Quiet Qatar: Few fans, little buzz for gymnastics worlds
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — All the usual bells and whistles were there. The pyrotechnic introductions. The in-house deejay heavy on American pop music. An aggressive social media campaign replete with its own hashtag (#GoGymtastic). The bright colors on the competition floor. Oh, and perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time at the height of her astonishing powers.
Only one thing seemed to be missing during the world championships' first visit to the Middle East: people.
The majority of the sessions during the 10-day meet that ended Saturday were held in front of significant swaths of empty blue and yellow seats at the Aspire Dome. Most of the audience wore pink lanyards with laminated ID cars attached, a clear giveaway that they weren't paying customers but members of one of the dozens of gymnastic federations who flocked to the desert for the sport's marquee event, one that at times seemed more like a convention than anything else.
"It's really different," Simone Biles said after leading the U.S. women to gold in the team final in front of an arena that was half-filled at best. "It almost felt like it wasn't world championships out there because there's not a lot of people in the crowd and most of the crowd was made up of delegations. But it's so exciting to see the delegation out here supporting everyone in your own country."
Logistically there were few hiccups, another small positive step for a country preparing to host the world track and field championships in 2019 and soccer's World Cup in 2022.
The buses ran on time and getting around in general wasn't a problem in a place where an Uber could be found. Save for a handful of brief downpours — including one that flooded one of the training gyms and another that led to a brief power outage on the floor during women's qualifying, the weather cooperated too, with temperatures in the mid-80s.
Concerns about how the culture of a sport that preaches openness would be received in a conservative Muslim country evaporated quickly. The proof lay next door at a massive shopping mall, where many of the gymnasts spent their down time walking around in shorts and T-shirts alongside Qataris in culturally traditional attire.
And yet four years of meticulous preparations by the local organizing committee did little to spark widespread interest in a sport that's still trying to gain a foothold in the region.
Minutes before the women's team final Tuesday, Americans Anne Josephson, Nicole Caggiano and Tina Ferriola — all of whom own gyms in the U.S. — and Matt Goldsmith walked along a sparse concourse before what is typically the biggest night of every world championships. They marveled at how many good seats were still available, the gymnastics equivalent of the Golden State Warriors winning an NBA title in front of friends and family and little else.
"There are more people in my gym on a Wednesday morning taking 'Mommy and Me' classes than there are in here right now and it's really sad," said Josephson, who runs Jag Gym in Culver City, California.
Josephson read the U.S. State Department report on Qatar before her group purchased tickets and wasn't worried about safety, though she pointed out she chose to wear black pants despite the heat because she wanted to "follow the rules."
While they anticipated an environment that wasn't quite as frenzied as what they experienced at the 2017 worlds in Montreal last year — when thousands of Canadians flocked to Olympic Stadium — they were struck by the lack of buzz inside the arena, which had a capacity of about 2,500 for the event.
"What an experience that we're about to have, all 60 of us together," Ferriola said. "Now we all are like good friends because this is a very intimate experience."
Organizers did what they could to engage younger Qataris, holding demonstrations in the run-up to the meet and using multiple social media platforms to provide a close look at the athletes. They gave away tickets to local schools and on the day of the men's all-around final offered 50 percent off for adults and allowed children under 10 to get in free. And still the stands were nowhere close to full.
Save for a couple of storefront banners close to the massive Aspire Zone — the sprawling complex in the western suburbs that served as the host of the 2006 Asian Games — and the random bus, there was little proof Biles was chasing history. Meanwhile, signs promoting a professional squash tournament lined lampposts that ran down the median of Al Corniche Street in front of the city's signature downtown skyline.
"We are still building a sporting culture in our region, this cannot be done overnight," Ali Al-Hitmi, CEO of the local organizers wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "We have seen the numbers in the crowd grow each day over the course of the 10-day event. The atmosphere itself has swept across our country and word of mouth has seen many ticket purchases on the door at Aspire Dome."
The International Gymnastics Federation praised the Qatar for its effort and said it had received "no major complaints" from the delegations, though the federation expressed concern about the lackluster numbers — particularly early on— and placed the blame on a competition schedule designed to appease TV rights holders across the globe.
The team, all-around and event finals all began at 4 p.m. local time, the height of rush hour in a city of over a million people. Many families head home for evening prayer immediately after work or school, making getting to a two-hour meet difficult. Attendance did perk up during the event finals, which were held on Friday and Saturday, the weekend in Qatar.
American Morgan Hurd felt an uptick in the energy while competing in the floor exercise finals on Saturday but also allowed she received a boost because she could hear Biles shouting out her support, something that's typically difficult to pick out when music is blaring and the stands are packed.
The world championships head to Stuttgart, Germany, next October, and ticket sales are brisk. Qatar, meanwhile, will move forward in preparations for track's visit to Khalifa International Stadium, across the street from the Aspire Dome.
Organizers aren't concerned about the somewhat unenthusiastic response to gymnastics having a negative impact in terms of drawing fans — particularly Westerners — to a country that's hoping to use sports to help expand its global footprint.
"We have no doubt that the venue will be full," Sheikh Asma Al Thani, director of marketing and communications for the 2019 world track championships wrote in an email. "We are working with many different stakeholders to ensure we can bring in as many international and local fans to the championship, offering them a cultural and sporting experience like no other."
Maybe, but the country that promises to "Deliver Amazing" when the World Cup arrives in four years could have its work cut out delivering something else.
Enough people to watch.