Moscow running scared from World Championships

Crowds look as if they will be way down and the cloud of doping hovers over the host nation’s atheletes

While he always starts a season slowly,  the hope is that Usain Bolt will be on flying form come the World Championships in August. Photograph: Laurent Dubrule/Reuters

While he always starts a season slowly, the hope is that Usain Bolt will be on flying form come the World Championships in August. Photograph: Laurent Dubrule/Reuters


Irma Thomas always had it on her side. The Rolling Stones had it covered too. The rest of us just never seem to have enough – and I’m not talking about money. Because it’s time once again to pull out the old stopwatch, dust off the ranking lists, and call around to that friendly neighbour who knows how to work the BBC red button.

Like that hungry wolf ready to pounce, it’s come out of nowhere: another summer of track and field now slipping through the fourth dimension and suddenly upon us. Indeed this one has come on with virtually negligible warning, and even less fanfare, unlike last summer’ athletics blockbuster that was the London Olympics.

Oh, if only time could stand still.

Indeed I strongly suspect that the season has come on so fast that many of you armchair athletics fans actually missed the first big meeting of 2013, staged last night at the Hamad Bin Suhaim Stadium, in Doha, Qatar.

Doha was the first of 14 stops in the IAAF Diamond League, which jumps around the globe between now and September 6th – and for those of us in this part of the world, only available to watch via the BBC red button. No Irish athletes to report about yet either.

Big paydays
Despite losing Samsung as its title sponsor, the Diamond League still provides the big pay days for the headline acts of the sport, especially when they move on to places like Oslo, Monaco, and of course Zurich.

Doha actually boasted 10 gold medallists from last summer’s London Olympics, including my own personal favourite, David Rudisha. The big man from Kenya isn’t wasting any time in setting himself new challenges, and having achieved everything possible over 800 metres, is now targeting the world record over 1,000m – and perhaps some day soon, please, will run the metric mile.

I’m still not entirely convinced by the Diamond League format, nor exactly sure of how it works: a sort of global expansion of the old IAAF Grand Prix, it may actually have diluted interest, at least as far as the TV commissioners are concerned.

It would be different if Usain Bolt was on the start list at every stop, but he is only human, at least most of the time. Bolt also prefers to take his time, ease his way into the season, although he too is now up and running, winning the 100 metres at the Cayman Invitational on Wednesday in a positively pedestrian 10.09 seconds.

Bolt has never been a man to rush things, and just about got to the line first, his 21-year-old training partner Kemar Bailey Cole given the same time in second (and afraid, it seemed, of winning). More interesting was the 100 metres run at the Kingston Invitational in Jamaica last Saturday: Bolt withdrew due to injury, and so the victory went to his once closest rival Tyson Gay in a definitely not pedestrian 9.86 seconds.

Now, no one was accusing Bolt of dodging Gay, but you know the way it works with the so-called headline acts: they’ll deftly avoid each other all summer, ensuring their appearance fees stay at the max, until it comes to sharing the main stage, or in this case the IAAF World Athletics Championships, set for the old Grand Sports Arena of the Luzhniki Olympic Complex, in sunny Moscow, from August 10-18th.

I’ve never been to the Luzhniki, but did make it up to Moscow once, and can’t imagine a more daunting city on earth, with the possible exception of Kabul.

It was in the depths of winter, and felt as if hell had indeed frozen over: the traffic was backed up for decades, the mood was distinctly grim, and let’s just say that “Mockba” – as they call it around Red Square – might not be the most exciting venue for the World Athletics Championships.

Don’t just take my word for it: last month, the IAAF staged their Council Meeting in Moscow, and didn’t exactly come away impressed. IAAF president Lamine Diack, a man of normally placidly bland words, publicly criticised both the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – not the sort of thing many people would get away with.

Diack’s criticism was over Moscow’s poor promotion of the World Championships, at least compared to Russia’s hosting of two other sporting events – this summer’s University Games, in Kazan, and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, next February. Ticket sales remain worryingly slow, and organisers have already agreed to shrink the Luzhniki’s 90,000-seat capacity to just 50,000, then hope for the best.

But if Moscow is proving a hard sell it’s less about the actual venue as it is Russia’s now truly grimly depressing record on doping.

I won’t bore you with the details, because on the latest count, there are now 33 high-profile Russian athletes serving a ban for some doping offence, and they’re just the ones we know about.

London Olympic discus silver medallist Darya Pishchalnikova is the latest addition, now banned for 10 years for a second doping offence. And there was the sadly touching story recently of Britain’s Lynsey Sharp, now promoted to 2012 European champion over 800m following the positive test of Russia’s original champion, Yelena Arzhakova. “It’s a huge problem,” said Sharp. “There’s a lot of people being caught, but it’s nothing compared to the amount of people getting away with it.”

In my experience, what not only sells but makes the World Championships is the presence and promotion of athletes from the host nation, and right now, most Russian athletes are either running scared or not running at all. Their lack of any credible presence in Moscow this August may or may not prove a good thing, but only time, as always, will tell.