DOHA (Reuters) - American Christian Coleman scorched to the 100 meters world championship gold medal on Saturday but the crowning of the world’s fastest man could generate no more buzz than the air conditioning in a half-empty Khalifa Stadium.
Coleman, runner-up to Justin Gatlin two years ago in London, did his part to send a jolt of excitement through a thin audience by turning the tables on his team mate in a season’s best 9.76 seconds, making him the sixth fastest man of all-time.
“Last time it was a surprise when I won silver, this time there was a lot of pressure but I managed to come out with a gold,” Coleman told reporters. “At the end all my worries evaporated out there. It was crazy feeling.
“To add my name to the list of legendary guys who’ve come before me is an honor and a blessing.”
The 37-year-old Gatlin continued to prove he is one of sprinting’s big-time performers, however, grabbing silver in 9.89.
Canadian Andre De Grasse, a triple medal winner at the Rio Olympics and returning to form after a string of injuries, completed the podium by clocking 9.90 to take the bronze.
“This season is a testament to my endurance and willpower,” said Gatlin. “He ran a great race but I have a message for next year - I’m coming. He better be ready.”
In the blue riband event of the world championships, the sight of thousands of empty seats was surely a troubling one for officials.
If the marquee 100m on a Saturday night cannot produce a full house in a stadium, in which entire sections are already covered by signage, it seems unlikely the championships will ever announce a sellout.
Qatar has demonstrated a huge appetite for hosting the world’s biggest sporting parties, including the 2022 World Cup, but its people have shown little desire to actually attend them.
After the opening two days it is uncertain if even the great Jamaican showman Usain Bolt himself could have pulled in a larger audience which offered only polite applause as Coleman raised his arms in victory.
Low attendance and high temperatures have provided early headaches for the 10-day competition.
While temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) outside Khalifa Stadium, inside sprinters competed in the air-conditioned comfort of the futuristic venue where the thermometer hovered pleasantly in the mid-20sC.
Certainly, it was no sweat for Coleman.
The 23-year-old American was in imperious form as he led from start to finish to leave the field trailing in his wake before letting out a mighty scream and blowing a kiss to the sky as he crossed the line.
While it seemed there was little to stop Coleman on the track, however, problems off it nearly derailed his world championships before they started.
Just weeks ago the American had looked in danger of missing the event when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) filed - and later withdrew - a whereabouts violation charge that could have resulted in a one or two-year suspension.
Coleman’s victory, however, is unlikely to result in the American being hailed as Bolt’s successor as the face of athletics.
Gatlin, a double world champion, has a doping past that includes a four-year suspension after testing positive for testosterone in 2006 and the crown of world’s fastest man has now passed to Coleman who has also been in the doping spotlight.
Coleman has emphatically denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
“It’s pretty disheartening what people out there are saying especially when they don’t know me personally at all,” Coleman said when asked about the doping suspicion. “I feel at this point I am just over it.
“Obviously, people are going think what they want to think,” he added.
“I can’t spend much time explaining the situation to people who are not interested in the truth. I was just not focused on that at all. I’m just over it.”
Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Gene Cherry, Editing by Ed Osmond