Norway’s track and field star Karsten Warholm both won and received his World Championship gold medal this week at a stadium in Qatar that he described as pretty much empty. It took the shine off a major athletic accomplishment, and it’s bothered many others as well.
“There could have been more folks here in the grandstands, I have to admit that,” Warholm told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “Others think the same thing.”
His comments came after he formally received his gold medal proving that he’s the fastest man in the world in the 400-meter hurdles. It was a great moment for any athlete, but there weren’t many spectators to hail or cheer him on.
“It was something completely different in London (in 2017), to run in front of 60,000 people and hear all the cheers,” Warholm told NRK. “There was a lack of that here (in Qatar).”
Warholm has already been on a warpath of sorts in Qatar, not only beating his fellow competitors but readily admitting that he feels like a “doggone hypocrite” for agreeing to compete in a country that has severely exploited migrant workers who worked 14-hour days building and remodelling facilities for the World Championships and have been paid either paltry wages or nothing at all.
The Norwegian teams also had to find new hotels after arriving in Qatar after being met with the smell of sewage and dirty conditions in the rooms to which they were assigned. Coaches declared that the rooms presented a health hazard.
Håvard Melnæs, editor of the Norwegian football magazine Josimar, doesn’t think any Norwegian athletes should be competing in Qatar. “Norway should boycott all international athletic compeitions in Qatar,” Melnæs told NRK. “These events contribute to Qatar needing more foreign migrant workers whom they treat like modern slaves.”
Qatar, however, has been actively and successfully getting the rights to hold major athletic events. Officials at IAAF, which is behind the current World Championships, have defended the decision as a means of spreading athletics to new, attractive markets. Qatar, however, has been harshly criticized for failing to respect human rights, with several hundred migrant construction workers reportedly being killed on the job in addition to being paid extremely low wages.
“Every time the sports world chooses Qatar as the site of a championship, more workers die and live in the equivalent of an apartheid state,” Melnæs told NRK.
Qatar has promised improvements, while sports officials talk about the potential for “dialogue” to promote human rights, but a new report by Amnesty International claims that few if any inprovements have materialized. International athletics organizations are accused of allowing themselves to be exploited by in turn allowing Qatar to use them as a means of “whitewashing” their image.
Others warn that boycotting Qatar or other totalitarian regimes could make things worse. Robert Mood, a former UN envoy to Syria and currently president of the Norwegian Red Cross said boycotts seldom hurt political leaders in the countries involved. “Sports should build bridges and contribute to understanding and dialogue,” Mood told NRK.
Warholm, meanwhile, is far from alone in complaining about the lack of cheering fans at the stadium in Doha. Both The Guardian and The Telegraph in the UK have reported that attendance at the World Championships in Qatar’s capital is “a catastrophe.” On Sunday evening, when the events began, only around 1,000 people were in the grandstands, according to The Guardian. The Evening Standard reported there were more journalists and support staff for athletes than spectators at the World Championships on Monday, and when Warholm won his event Monday night, there were only around 10,000 spectators in a stadium that can hold 40,000.
Newspaper Dagsvisen reported on Thursday that another reason for the empty seats can be linked to problems in the actual program of events. Complaints have arisen over lengthy periods between high points, as long as six hours, for example, between some qualifying events and the finals. It was almost midnight when a 400-meter women’s race began. Most events are held in the evening in Qatar because of high temperatures during the day.