The Observer view on the World Athletics Championships: a sport in crisis | Observer editorial | Opinion

Major sports events tend to follow the same, inviolable narrative. In the build-up, the projections are universally doom-laden. Media reports focus on the dubious circumstances under which the host city was awarded the prize (the process, whichever sport we’re discussing, is always dubious). There are invariably problems with the stadiums, which are either behind schedule and over budget or over budget and completed with a disregard to working conditions and human life.

But then the action starts and the mood shifts. We forget many of the pre-tournament snags and are overwhelmed, at last, by the awe-inspiring performances of the competitors. Millions of us come together, reminded of the strange fact that nothing unites our nation quite as sport does.

The World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar have not followed this preordained arc. The event certainly had the pessimistic build-up. Qatar in September and October, when the temperatures typically exceed 38C (100F) every day, is clearly not an obvious place to host a track-and-field meeting. There were fears that the Khalifa stadium, which holds 40,000 people, would be half-empty. There were grave concerns about hosting the championships in an Islamic state where homosexuality is illegal. Eyebrows were raised over how Doha was awarded the event over more logical venues, namely Eugene, Oregon, and Barcelona. The decisive factor was an 11th-hour promise to pay £23.5m in sponsorship and build 10 new tracks around the world.

So yes, there was the troubled preamble in spades. But where the 2019 World Championships have ripped up the script is what has happened since the competition started. We haven’t had the feelgood bounce. Some of the problems were anticipated. Namely, that many of the athletics greats of recent times were not in Doha: Usain Bolt has retired; Mo Farah decided to run the Chicago marathon instead; the South African 400m star Wayde van Niekerk is injured.

But it is not these high-profile absentees who have hamstrung this year’s championships. The real issue is that it has been impossible for the athletes who did make it to Doha to compete with the drama that is happening off the track. Probably the main talking point has been the four-year ban for doping violations given last week to Alberto Salazar, a coach best known in the UK for working with Farah from 2010 to 2017. There was further controversy when the men’s 100m final was won by Christian Coleman, an American who narrowly dodged a two-year ban for missing three drugs tests in one year.

And yet, even though the World Championships have been a promotional car crash for athletics, there have still been jump-off-the-sofa, high-five-the-dog moments. For British viewers specifically, these were the performances of the double-barrelled double act of Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson. The 26-year-old heptathlete Johnson-Thompson you probably know already: her calamitous long jump in Beijing in 2015 and high jump in London in 2017 derailed medal bids in those championships. Watching the Liverpudlian overcome these disappointments to win gold on Thursday night was pure catharsis.

Asher-Smith, meanwhile, who won gold in the 200m on Wednesday and came second in the 100m, appears poised for superstardom. When the Olympics go to Tokyo next summer, Seb Coe predicts that the 23-year-old from Orpington, south London, could be the “poster child” for the Games. Of course, all we should be talking about right now is what she’s done, what she can do, but even in the immediate aftermath, her performances have been overshadowed by other farcical elements of the Doha championships. As Asher-Smith completed her lap of honour after the 100m, fewer than 1,000 people remained in the stadium. Her mother noted, wryly but sadly, that more spectators watched her at a national age-group competition in Bedford.

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