DOHA, Qatar — As the world track and field championships got underway Friday before a smattering of fans in an air-conditioned outdoor stadium, the event seemed more notable for where it was being held than for the athletes who had come to compete in this sun-parched city on the Persian Gulf.
Even as officials expressed hope that a cluster of up-and-comers could create buzz for a sport that, now more than ever, needs the attention, the absences of big-time stars were a major concern.
The list of the missing was topped by Usain Bolt, a thunderclap on the track and the fastest man ever. An 11-time world champion, Bolt was synonymous with this event for more than a decade. He collected 100- and 200-meter titles like coupons, smashed world records and even nudged his profession toward the mainstream in non-Olympic years, one of his greatest feats of all.
But Bolt retired in 2017 after a final appearance at the world championships in London, and several other marquee athletes who remain active did not make the trip to Doha.
Among them: Mo Farah, the decorated British distance runner, who chose to skip an appearance here so that he could try to defend his title in the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13. Wayde van Niekerk, the reigning Olympic gold medalist and the world-record holder in the men’s 400 meters, is sidelined as he recovers from a knee injury. Even Allyson Felix, one of the most accomplished sprinters ever, will compete in just one event at these championships — the women’s 4 x 400-meter relay — after giving birth to her first child last November.
Sebastian Coe, who was re-elected this week as president of I.A.A.F., the sport’s governing body, pointed to the youth movement, noting at an introductory news conference that about a quarter of the athletes who populate the sport’s top 10 lists are 23 years old or younger.
“I can’t actually remember a time in the sport when I’ve been so optimistic and excited about young talent coming through,” Coe said.
At the same time, excitement about all that young talent likely will not be enough to overtake everyone’s obsession with the heat and the never-ending chatter about doping.
It is so hot and humid in Doha — highs are expected to exceed 100 degrees every day — that Khalifa International Stadium, the outdoor stadium where the championships are being staged, is air-conditioned.
That is good news for everyone except the marathoners and racewalkers, who will be competing on the molten streets of Doha. In a concession to the conditions, officials have scheduled those races to be held late at night, when temperatures are expected to dip into the mid-80s: 11:59 p.m. starts for the marathoners and 11:30 p.m. starts for the racewalkers.
Still, officials said they were bracing for the elements by “overscaling the medical plan” — more doctors and medical professionals on hand, for example — and by increasing the number of refreshment zones. Coe said the welfare of the athletes was his organization’s top priority.
“We will have more water on the course than we’ve ever had in any marathon,” he said.
Coe also has had to address the political climate in Qatar, an Islamic state where homosexuality is illegal. He said he thought homosexual athletes would feel comfortable competing and spur change.
“I’m also a great believer that sport shifts the political, cultural and social dial,” he said at his news conference. “It’s one of the great soft powers that we have.”
Coe highlighted the diversity of the field: nearly 2,000 athletes from 208 countries, plus a team of refugees and about 30 neutral athletes — namely, those from Russia who are being given the opportunity to compete amid the ongoing suspension of the country’s athletics federation in the wake of a widespread doping scandal.
One of Bolt’s great legacies is that he was never entwined in controversy — and it is also one of the many reasons that the sport now misses him.
Without him, the spotlight in the men’s 100 meters has found Christian Coleman, a 23-year-old American, though not for the reasons that Coleman would prefer.
Coleman, who has the fastest time in the world this year, was in the cross hairs of the U.S. Anti-Doping Association this summer after he was charged with missing three drug tests in one year, which could have resulted in a two-year ban. The World Anti-Doping Agency has a “whereabouts” program that requires athletes to register their locations so they can be tested, and Coleman had three such failures, including one on June 6, 2018.
But W.A.D.A.’s guidelines call for filing failures to be backdated to the first day of that particular quarter. As a result, Coleman’s failure on June 6 was backdated to April 1, which meant that his three missed tests had not (technically) occurred in a 12-month period, and USADA dropped its case against him.
Coleman has been tested at least 20 times since 2018, according to U.S.A.D.A. He has forcefully maintained his innocence. Last week, he released a 22-minute YouTube video titled “My Perspective” in which he criticized everyone from drug-testing officials to members of the news media.
On Thursday, Coe was asked whether it would be “good” for the sport if Coleman were to become a world champion in Doha.
“Yes, of course,” said Coe, who also acknowledged that his organization had been re-evaluating its rules and potentially closing loopholes.
“A missed test should set off alarm bells,” Coe said, adding: “But we also have to be very protective of the reputations of the athletes.”
The men’s 100-meter field also will include Justin Gatlin, a 37-year-old American who has been a provocative presence on the world stage. In 2017 at these championships, Gatlin, who has twice served bans for doping, outsprinted Bolt, who wound up finishing third. Gatlin then bowed at Bolt’s feet as the stadium filled with boos. Bolt posted a couple of photos of himself this week sitting at a desk in an office cubicle, wearing a sharp suit.
It was a new type of uniform for Bolt on the eve of the world championships, where he still looms large.