Spectators hold up a poster of high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim, of Qatar, at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Crowd finally pack Qatar track worlds stadium, see home gold

October 04, 2019 - 6:16 pm

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Even when it all seemed to finally go right for the Qataris and their hometown hero, there was still a hitch.

High jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim — "The Qatari Falcon" — had the hopes of a nation and a screaming, standing-room-only crowd in Khalifa Stadium behind him Friday night. The fans gasped at every jump and roared each time he cleared the bar.

After delivering a gold medal — to go along with his 2017 world championship and his silver from the Rio Olympics — Barshim stood in silence on the podium, waiting to hear his name and the Qatari anthem.

But the sound system broke down just when it was needed most. There was a smattering of confused applause as Barshim and his fellow medalists departed without their medals.

They will be back for another try at the medal ceremony Saturday. A perfect incentive for the crowds to return, especially if free tickets are being handed out again.

"They came because they believed," Barshim said. "I am happy about that because tomorrow is better because I am tired and I need everyone there to sing the national anthem."

The nation's emir — the spectator who ultimately bankrolled this first track and field world championships in the Middle East — was there to savor Barshim's crowning moment.

Since winning a disputed bid for the 2022 World Cup nine years ago, Qatar has taken criticism for luring sports events to this desert nation despite the difficulty of attracting fans, the oppressive heat and the need to build new stadiums with air-conditioning. Sports is a key part of the image-building movement to bolster the tiny nation's reputation as something more than a gas producer and an importer of foreign labor.

Barshim's gold medal was one of the rare celebrations of a home-grown athlete on the world stage. Qatari 400-meter hurdles bronze medalist Abderrahman Samba was born in Saudi Arabia, and many other national athletes have moved to Qatar. But Barshim was born here.

Every jump was cheered uproariously, none more so than clearing 2.37 meters for a world-leading height this year that sealed gold. Russians Mikhail Akimenko and Ilya Ivanyuk both failed all three attempts at that height.

"There was a lot of pressure, but I need pressure to jump," Barshim said, "to push myself to the maximum. I am really happy I got to do it at home."

Barshim quit after the Russians failed. This was a night for defending a world title not for chasing the world record of 2.45. There were celebrations, particularly with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

"I felt the love from the crowd, from the emir himself to everyone," Barshim said. "He was really happy and proud."

After a week of global headlines about poor attendances, fans filling the seats should be a tonic for the nation.

"They are the champions tonight," Barshim said. "Not me."

Spectators from Qatar's migrant worker population told The Associated Press they were given free tickets to fill the venue, which still had one upper tier of seats covered. But some struggled to get into their sections. The tickets were for Category A areas and had the price of 0 Qatari riyal on them.

Electrician Leonard Agbottah said he registered for free tickets two days ago and picked them up at the stadium Friday.

The local organizing committee did not respond to questions about tickets being handed out for free, only saying "every effort to accommodate both existing — and new — athletics fans."

Any fans here Saturday will be hoping to hear the stadium announcements and anthems.

"The in-stadium system that is responsible for the distribution of the audio signal to the speakers failed and the backup did not kick in as it should have," the IAAF told the AP. "They are calling in the technicians to check it over before tomorrow."

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