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Checking Out Khalifa International Stadium

Last week's Asian Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar were held at Khalifa International Stadium, the same place where this fall's World Championships will be held. These days I'm working with three members of the Japanese team at the Asian Championships and went along to help them out and to check out the stadium and surrounding area. The below was my personal experience throughout the four days of the AAC.

Day One

One of the athletes' dad / coach was there to watch her run, so I spent the first day with him. He'd bought a ticket online, near the 250 m point on the back corner, Row 2, Seat 35. I couldn't get the online ticket site to work, so I went to the ticket office at the stadium to buy Seat 36. The two friendly young women working at the ticket window seemed pleasantly surprised that someone had come to buy a ticket, although when I asked they said I wasn't the first one.

Our tickets said Gate 20, but when we went there we found that although it had crowd funnels in place and its ticket scanners were on, the gate was locked. We doubled back to nearby Gate 18 which had been open, but the ticket takers wouldn't let us in there. "Go to Gate 20," they said. I told them it was locked and they said, "Go to Gate 22." At Gate 22 they told us, "Go to Gate 20." When I told them it was locked they said, "Go to Gate 18." When I said we had just been there and that they'd told us to come here they said, "Go to Gate 23 or 24." At Gate 24 they told us, "Go to Gate 20."

At that point a passing official from Ireland noticed us and tried to help, explaining to the ticket takers and security that we were paying customers. "You must talk to the Captain," said the security guy. "Where is he?" asked the official. "Go to Gate 22," he said. At Gate 22 they didn't know anything about the Captain, so we went back to Gate 24. After much discussion they reluctantly scanned our tickets, 40 minutes after I'd bought mine. Security went through everything in our bags, and then we were in.

Into the inner hallway. We tried to go through the inner doors into the stadium seating but were stopped. "Go to Door 20," they told us. We went there and found it ziptied shut. So were others. Door 18 was open, but again they stopped us and told us to go to Door 20. We said it was ziptied shut and they didn't believe us, so one stadium staff person went with us, then told us, "Go to Door 22." We went there and, of course, they told us, "Go to Door 20." I told them, "Look, we're going in here, turning right, and walking over to our seats. You can escort us if you want to." That seemed to work, and we went through the door into the stadium.

A virtually empty stadium. Except for staff there was one other person in our end of the stadium. See the photo at the top. We went to find our seats and discovered that they didn't exist. Our tickets were for Seats 35 and 36, but the rows only went as high as Seat 28 in each section. "Just sit anywhere," said the escort.

We would have liked to, but the seats were in filthy condition, covered in dirt and bird shit and with construction debris everywhere. Chunks of wood, sections of drywall, construction workers' discarded gloves, and long screws everywhere, on the seats, the ground, everywhere. It looked as though the seating had never been cleaned since construction had been finished. Luckily we had packages of wetwipes and cleaned off our seats as best we could.

Over the first afternoon session the attendance never really picked up. There were a few groups of coaches and team officials in little bunches here and there for the pole vault and other field events, but at its peak I counted only about 150 people in the 48,000-capacity stadium not including uniformed stadium staff. During the men's 100 m rounds just about the only people in the home straight stands were four Japanese coaches near the start watching Yoshihide Kiryu and Ryota Yamagata, and the local VIPs in the plush middle section, presumably the ones who had b(r)ought the Asian Championships and World Championships to Doha. To my surprise it started raining a bit during the last few events.

Day Two

On the second day I was back at the ticket window. Marnya, the same woman who had helped me the day before, told me, "Oh, the tickets are free now." "What? Why?" I asked. She shrugged and said, "I don't know, they just are." I asked if the ones in the section above the finish line were free and she said, "No, you have to buy those." I got one at about 30 or 40 m into the first curve with a more or less direct view down the home straight.

Getting in was pretty easy compared to the first day. My ticket said Gate 8, and although the security stopped me and had a good look at my ticket they let me in. No bag check. The people inside weren't really sure where my section was, just waving me in the general direction, and again my seat number didn't seem to correspond to the seats that were actually there, but no real problems. The seats were cleaner, still dusty enough to need to be wiped down, but no construction debris to be seen.

As on Day One the air conditioning in the stadium kept things cool. The screen always said it was 22˚C to 23˚C, but it felt colder. Cold enough to be uncomfortable in short sleeves, especially if the wind blew at all and once the sun went down. Good for the athletes, but worth bringing something to pull on for spectators. Also as on Day One, it rained around 9:00 p.m., much harder this time.

Attendance was pretty thin throughout the afternoon and evening. You'd think of the men's 100 m final as one of the marquee events of any championships meet. Here the home straight stands were almost empty, broken down into a section above the start with a few coaches, a buffer zone between that and the VIP section, the relatively populated VIP section, another buffer zone, a section 15 seats wide above the finish line where ordinary people could get tickets, a media seating section, a section at the top of the curve for athletes and coaches, then general seating where I was. There were a few people to my right, but this was the situation when Japanese national record holder Yoshihide Kiryu won the men's 100 m gold medal:

Just on the other side of The Torch tower standing next to the stadium, the Villaggio Mall will be the go-to place to eat during the World Championships. Shake Shack is the most visible, right next to the entrance closest to the stadium, but just past it to the right is a large food court with about two dozen restaurants encircling an ice skating rink. The first time I went there was a hockey game going on. Hockey Night in Qatar. The second time the Qatari national short track speed skating team was practicing. The third time, some figure skaters. The whole mall is done up in a Venetian theme, with an arched ceiling creating the optical illusion that the clouds painted on them are moving as you walk.

Day Three

Around the stadium and mall there's a green designated running lane, one of the only places I saw to run in Doha apart from down by the water. I didn't see anyone using it, but it's there, and it leads to a large park on the opposite side of the mall from the stadium.

Back at the ticket window Marnya told me I was the third person to get tickets for day three. They were still free. I asked for two, the same seat I'd had the day before and one in the same place as on Day One for the women's 10000 m. "I'll just give you ones where you can sit anywhere in your section," she said. Security at Gate 8 pretty much ignored me, with one volunteer scanning my ticket on his phone and then waving me through.

The attendance story was pretty much the same throughout the session, even with the 4x100 m finals happening. The women's 10000 m was the last event of the night, and to get around to the other side I tried going through the interior hallway. Where they wouldn't even let us go through an interior door two doors down from the number on our ticket on the first day, this time nobody challenged me the whole way around the stadium, even at the door to my section. I went to the exact same seat as on the first day, good old Seat 24. To my surprise, although the seats were still dirty all the construction debris was gone. It must have been a massive job to get done that quickly.

What people there were in the stadium for the relays mostly cleared out before the women's 10000 m, the last on the program for the day. Just before the race started I counted 101 people in the stands not including volunteers and staff or people wearing Japanese national team uniforms. It had to have been the low point in attendance throughout the week.

Day Four

Before the last afternoon/evening session got rolling I walked around the stadium/park area some more and found some groups of nice-looking food trucks that will be another good food and coffee option during Worlds. I don't know if the concession stands inside the stadium will be open then, but I never saw them open this time around. Marnya was out to lunch, but I picked up yet another free ticket back in the usual spot on the first corner. At Gate 8 the same volunteer as the day before smiled and said hi as he scanned my ticket and the security guys didn't even look up.

Early on there weren't that many people, but as the day went on and the men's high jump final got started that section started filling up. Qatar's defending world champion Mutaz Essa Barshim wasn't jumping but was there in the stands, and it was pretty obvious that he had helped bring some buzz to the high jump for the home crowd.

That spilled over into the other events going on at the same time and afterward. By the time of the 4x400 m relays that closed the Asian Championships it was even getting rowdy. It was only in that one part of the stadium, but for the first time in the four days there was some real energy and enthusiasm from the local fans.

There was obviously an issue of visibility. My Airbnb host across the park from the stadium hadn't known the Asian Championships were happening until I told him that's why I was there, and I didn't see any advertising around town except at the airport when I got there. But once word got around the numbers did go up. How much further can they go for the World Championships this fall, and how many fans will make the trip from abroad?

Khalifa International Stadium is beautiful and cleaned up nicely, and things went more smoothly as the Asian Championships went on. But it's hard to see it packed with the kind of ravenous full house we saw at the 2017 London World Championships. The local VIP seating section in the center of the home straight looked pretty much hard-wired, but will they keep the buffer zone of blocked-off seating on either side for Worlds? Let's hope that the right lessons were learned from this practice run for the fall's main event and that there are fewer empty seats everywhere, whatever the final numbers.

text and photos © 2019 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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