The Russian authorities were coming under increasing pressure over sparse attendances at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow, which have been marked by banks of empty seats and a sometimes hollow atmosphere.
Top athletes including Britain’s 10,000m champion Mo Farah and US hurdler Aries Merritt have expressed disappointment over the turnout at the vast 84,745-capacity Luzhniki stadium, which hosted the boycott-stained 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Morning sessions for qualifying events have taken place in an almost empty stadium while there were rows of seats spare even to see Usain Bolt’s victory in the blue riband men’s 100m on Sunday night.
Russia’s hosting of the championships is seen as a litmus test for its ability to organise a string of sporting events that President Vladimir Putin has won for the country in the next years, including the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 football World Cup.
Tatyana Lebedeva, a former Olympic women’s long jump champion and now vice-president of the Russian Athletics Federation, admitted there were teething problems but begged for patience as Russia was on a steep learning curve.
“Yes the stands are absolutely not full. Yes, tickets are being given away for free. And in the end the organisers are not getting by without mistakes,” she wrote in the Sovietsky Sport daily.
“But let’s be a bit indulgent. We just do not have experience of holding major athletics events. There are lots of things we do not know. We are learning and learning with pleasure.”