Chaos at the World Athletics Championships: the heat causes a cascade of abandonments

Chaos at the World Athletics Championships: the heat causes a cascade of abandonments
credit: Mustafa Abumenes AFP

Many athletes forced to compete outside the air-conditioned stadium were subjected to temperatures as high as 30°C and 75% humidity.

Spectacular failures in the women’s marathon, serial underperformances in walking, angry athletes: a foreseeable disadvantage of the organisation of the World Athletics Championships in Qatar, the crushing heat did not fail to stir up controversy from the very first days of the competition. 

“They think we’re stupid!” The main blow came from the 2017 world champion of the 50 km walk, the French Yohann Diniz. The 41-year-old athlete was all the more upset about the event in Doha as the heat is mainly handicapping participants in road races. Indeed, the air conditioning ensures a temperature of about 25 degrees inside the Khalifa stadium, penalizing those participating in outdoor events.

“I’m upset. In the stadium, we will have normal conditions but the off-stage, the marathon and walking, it was not considered. Now we’re mistaken for guinea pigs. It pisses me off and I regret being here. We’re going to start and finish in Dantean conditions,” he said on Thursday. Two days later, the Remois couldn’t even finish. The Frenchman dropped out at the 16th kilometer, defeated by the heat which reached about 30 degrees with 75% humidity, despite a departure given at 23:30 local time on the night of Saturday to Sunday.  


A series of retirements and times far from records

Those who completed the race did what they could: the event was won by the Japanese Ysuke Suzuki in 4 hours and 4 minutes, 20 seconds, more than half an hour behind the Frenchman’s world record (3 h 32 : 33). The same was true for the women with the victory of the Chinese Rui Liang in 4 hours 23 minutes and 26 seconds, far from the reference time of the Russian Klavdiya Afanasyeva (3 h 57 : 08). 

In total, fourteen retirements were recorded among the 46 male starters, six out of 23 female, equaling the sad “record” of the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, also held under extreme temperatures. “I promised my family that I would return safely, I kept my promise by giving up,” said Slovak Olympic champion Matej Toth. I had competed in Osaka where I had experienced the most difficult conditions of my career, but here it’s as if there was no air to breathe.” 

On Friday, the women’s marathon had already turned into a game of massacre, with images of striking failures, many athletes marching into the medical tent, exhausted bodies carried on stretchers or in wheelchairs.  

A record 28 retirements (out of 68 starters) had also been set, with a success for Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich in an unusually slow time at the top level (2 h 32 : 43), under 32 degrees and 73% humidity. 


Insufficient measures

In the face of this hecatomb and criticism of the awarding of the World Championships to Qatar, the International Athletics Federation (IAAF) tried to reassure without really convincing: “Thirty athletes were admitted to the medical centre as a precaution, explained the organisation after the women’s marathon. A small number of them were kept for observation, and one athlete was sent to the hospital before being allowed to leave. The medical centre was perfectly efficient. All the athletes who were received there were taken care of as soon as they arrived, most of them being able to leave within 20 minutes.” “First and foremost, we must think about the health of the athletes,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said before the start of the competition, saying: “We have taken a lot of precautions. 

In addition to the night programming, water points were multiplied, Red Cross volunteers were posted every 200 m and runners were offered the opportunity to ingest a capsule allowing doctors to monitor body temperature in real time and stop them in case of an alert. 

But it is not only walkers and marathon runners who make a harsh judgment about these Worlds, like the world champion of decathlon Kevin Mayer. “We can all see that this is a disaster, we didn’t really put the athletes forward by organizing the Championships here, we put them in difficulty,” said the Frenchman, also worried about the lack of public in the stadium. “We are certainly not in the right conditions to perform at all. 

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