DOHA – Organizers of the Cricket World Cup, the women’s football World Cup and the Copa America may disagree but the world athletics championships, which start in Doha on Friday, are the biggest sporting event of the year according to Sebastian Coe, head of the sport’s global body.
“We have a record number of countries, we have anywhere up to 40 countries that have a chance of winning medals, we are only one of two global sports and this is the largest sporting event of the year,” the IAAF president told reporters.
It is a bold claim for Coe to make, given the current state of the sport.
This year’s championships, which run until Oct. 6 at the air-conditioned Khalifa stadium, will be the first since the retirement of sprinter Usain Bolt, the sport’s only iconic figure, and there is no obvious candidate to fill the void left by the charismatic Jamaican.
It will be the second in a row without the participation of Russia, as the country remains banned following a World-Anti Doping Agency (WADA) report in 2015 which found evidence of widespread doping in the sport.
The only Russians present will be those with no doping history who have been cleared to compete internationally as neutrals — including high jump champion Maria Lasitskene.
Also missing will be the triple world and double Olympic champion over 800 meters, Caster Semenya, who has challenged the IAAF’s recently-introduced testosterone regulations.
The South African lost her appeal at the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) against the rules that mean middle distance female athletes with a high natural level of testosterone must take medication to reduce it.
She then appealed to the Swiss Federal Tribunal which initially allowed her to continue competing while she awaited its final verdict but then reversed that decision after hearing from the IAAF, ruling her out of the championships.
But Coe, who has long recognized that traditional athletics has to fight to stay relevant, said those challenges were “not remotely” the sport’s greatest.
“The largest challenge we face is to maintain our sport at the top of the sporting pyramid and to remain exciting and salient for young people,” he said.
As usual, the main interest will focus on the men’s 100 and 200 meters with an intriguing battle in prospect between United States trio Christian Coleman, Noah Lyles and veteran Justin Gatlin.
Lyles is expected to challenge for gold in both events at the Tokyo Olympics next year while Gatlin, the 100 meters titleholder, remains a contender at the age of 37.
Coleman is the year’s fastest man over 100 meters (9.81 seconds) although he was only cleared to compete earlier this month after the United States Anti-Doping Agency withdrew a whereabouts charge — a potential anti-doping violation — against him.
Expectations will also be high in the men’s 400 meters hurdles where Norwegian Karsten Warholm, who ran the second fastest-ever time one month ago in Zurich, faces American champion Rai Benjamin, the joint third-fastest man over the distance.
Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce will try to become the first runner, male or female, to win four 100 meters world titles.
Despite the stifling September temperatures in Doha, athletes have been promised pleasant conditions thanks to the innovative air-conditioning system at the competition venue.
In fact, Coe said heat would be more of a concern at the Tokyo Olympics.
“There has been a lot of effort and time taken to understand the technology which will be transferable but this has given us an opportunity to do a lot of work through our medical teams around the management of heat,” he said.
“Those findings will probably be more applicable and more profound for us going forward to Tokyo than they will be here.”