Last night’s 100m win in Rome by the serial drugs cheat Justin Gatlin reminded me of this; written while I was working in Doha, Qatar, in May 2006.
“Gatlin, the cynosure of all eyes” somewhat improbably shouts the top page headline in the local English newspaper, The Peninsula.
Not quite – five minutes before the soon to be fastest man of earth settles into his blocks for the 100m final at the World Super Tour meet in Doha, the stands empty. And I mean empty. One minute full; the next hundreds heading for the exits.A near empty stadium watches Gatlin (attention deficit syndrome: that was his excuse when caught on a doping offence as a teenager) record 9.77 which equals the world record.
Now whose record would that be? The last person to “smash” the world 100m record was one Tim Montgomery, who did it very improbably at an end-of-season meet in Paris. Anyone who has kept up with the BALCO scandal knows the rest of the story.
The announcer says that this will be rounded down to 9.76, which will be a new world record, and sure enough this is what happens. Cue frenzy trackside from people who clearly still believe in Santa Claus. Former hurdling great Renaldo Nehemiah is down there, cell phone glued to his ear.
Here’s another thing. Walking to the stadium earlier,the wind was blowing so hard it was howling. In the stadium, the flags are standing to attention.Yet down at the track, the wind speed monitors were either hidden over by the hulking discus throwers or turned off.
Later, after all the excitement of the 100m and with the men’s javelin underway, one mysteriously started working and showed a wind speed of +2.0; right on the limit.
We’re watching history, says one of my colleagues, as we watch Gatlin do the obligatory pose by the timing clock. Yeah, right.
But back to those glaringly empty seats. Earlier, I had noticed how the audience had come in as a flood and wondered could this possibly be a manufactured crowd, bussed in for the occasion.About fifteen minutes after Gatlin’s run, the stands had mysteriously filled up again.
Outside the stadium (which is magnificent by the way; oil money has its uses), the mystery is solved. Across the road, a piece of wasteland is packed full of the ubiquitous yellow buses that carry builder’s labourers to work every day. With the meet over, packs of the “second sitting” are dodging traffic on the busy dual carriageway to get their lift back to the infamous labour camps.
It’s an ingenious solution by the organisers to the perennial problem of getting bums on seats for meaningless Grand Prix track meets. They had also strategically placed a large group of screaming school children in the stand about 15 metres from the finish. No argument with that – the kids clearly were enjoying themselves and that’s where a triumphant athlete usually heads for before starting a lap of honour. At least that part of the stadium looked good for the cameras.
Apart from the mystery of the disappearing spectators, the main entertainment for the night was the fantastically efficient ground crew. They must have set their own world record for putting up the 100m hurdles and then removing them.
I wonder what kind of vitamins they’re on?