"I would have preferred if there were a lot more people."
DOHA, Qatar -- The 40,000-capacity Khalifa Stadium is a wondrous edifice within a city that is undergoing a radical transformation, glistening buildings and impressive stadia rising from the desert earth.
Yet, as former Olympic and world 400-meter champion Kirani James experienced after emerging for his opening race at track and field's IAAF World Championships to vast swathes of empty seats, the volume is frequently on low.
"[The fan reaction is supposed to be] part of the atmosphere," James, a former University of Alabama sprinter from Grenada, said. "That's why it's in the big stadium. For the fans. Look at the London [Olympics] in 2012, in Beijing in 2008, you have those experiences."
The arena bowl is encircled by banks of air-conditioning vents that can reduce the temperature to below 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20C). The athletes are able to run, jump and throw without concern, insulated from an oppressive climate where walking outdoors in midsummer is almost unimaginable.
Few expenses have been spared from the oil-enriched wallets of a nation that is betting the house on staging the 2022 FIFA World Cup to truly become a player on the international stage.
Yet, beyond that and the Olympics, the circus currently in town is arguably the next biggest showpiece in sport.
On the opening evening last Friday, local organizers claimed the attendance was at 70 percent capacity. By Day 3, under 50 percent. The math, it must be said, did not pass the eye test. Add in the media, the coaches and other officials, and large sections have, at times, lain almost vacant.
Not a good look on TV. Not a good feel from a viewpoint inside. The question, unsurprisingly, posed once again: Why take these championships here, and now?
Money, of course. A host of European media outlets uncovered that the city was offered $29.5 million in incentives on the eve of the bid, in 2014 -- not to mention allegations of additional cash. All of which occurred during the regime of previous IAAF president Lamine Diack and his son, Papa Massata, both of whom are due to stand trial on corruption charges in Paris next year.
After the politics and favors, the unappetizing reality is that athletes are claiming gold and then completing a lap of honor in front of family and precious few others.
"Of course I would like to have seen more people in the stadium," acknowledged current IAAF president Sebastian Coe. "But that isn't the only metric in the way I look at the athletics.
"Ticket sales here actually haven't been that bad," he said. "One of the problems we've been confronting is that people haven't turned up."
Sometimes, they have. On the night of the men's 5,000-meter final, a cheer section decked with Ethiopian flags bounced wildly when Muktar Edris out-sprinted compatriot Selemon Barega to win gold. Vibrant and vivacious, a joy to witness. Then Thursday, with the decathlon and heptathlon nearing their conclusion, the din was raucous and appealing with some of the wrappings, which had reduced the capacity to 21,000, were removed. With what is understood to be a belated effort to shift tickets, not all is lost.
Speaking from a makeshift office overlooking the field, Coe, a two-time Olympic 1500-meter gold medalist, is swift to defend both the Qataris and his own organization from a perception that they dropped the ball by transplanting their prime asset to the Middle East, away from its traditional heartlands in Europe and eastern Asia.
Potential ticket-buyers cannot make it to this small peninsula on the Persian Gulf from a number of Arab nations because of a blockade that has hurt travel ambitions.
It's an unforeseen glitch. Still, it was right to bring this event here, Coe said, given the investment in infrastructure and a long record of hosting one of the sport's Diamond League meetings.
This is a country of an indigenous elite supplemented by armies of migrant workers, many of whom are building the stadia and a transportation system that must be fully functional in three years' time.
Many would love to have enhanced the spectacle by urging on their countrymen and women.
"The problem is that none of them have cars," a member of the organizing staff who was not authorized to speak publicly said. "So they've laid on buses to take them from various points to get them into the stadium and fill up the seats.
"But they're at fixed times. And some of the buses have arrived empty. And there's no way those people get here otherwise."
It has raised concerns looking ahead to soccer's extravaganza, although officials have insisted the World Championships setback has not left them worried.
Speaking to The Guardian, Nasser Al Khater, CEO of the 2022 World Cup, emphasized that cultural accommodations will be made in anticipation of the arrival of fans from across the globe, with alcohol rules in his Muslim country relaxed from their current strict boundaries.
"We want to ensure it is accessible for fans who want to have a drink," he said. "So we are trying to find designated locations for fans to have alcohol, other than traditional places such as hotels and so forth."
Besides the complications over the lack of crowds, Coe -- previously chair of the organizing committee of the London 2012 Olympics -- has had a full diary here. The four-year ban handed out this week to the now-infamous coach Alberto Salazar, following an investigation by the USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) that found him culpable of multiple violations of its code, remains top of mind for Coe.
Coe has long called Salazar a friend. The former marathon runner's central involvement in the Nike-backed Oregon Project, a high-performance center where many Olympic champions trained under his watch, has raised questions that have yet to be fully answered.
"I can't imagine that USADA hasn't reached out to athletes, past and present," Coe asserted. "If there's any athlete who's been though the Oregon Project ... and they feel there is anything they can add to the sum total of human understanding on this, our door is open."
However, the next World Championships in 2021 will head to Eugene, Oregon. "In two years' time," Coe declared, "I hope the landscape looks even better."
The University of Oregon's Hayward Field, which will host the event, is being almost completely rebuilt to a 30,000-capacity venue thanks to a large donation from Nike founder Phil Knight.
Eugene calls itself TrackTown USA and its Prefontaine Classic is a mainstay on the circuit.
Still, filling every seat on each day and night will be a challenge, and the stakes have now been raised.
"Clearly, we will want to make sure that all the marketing techniques that we have around ticketing strategies and reaching out into all sorts of communities and using international engagement can get that stadium full," Coe said.
"You're taking it into a pretty small town, but it does have a big, big history and heritage for athletics. I know you can't just extrapolate out of a one- or two-day Prefontaine Diamond League meeting into nine or 10 days, morning and evening sessions."
Welcoming the worlds represents a huge opportunity for the IAAF, and for U.S. Track and Field, to wrestle attention toward a sport that, in the United States, rarely stands out between Olympic Games.
"The world champs will help a lot," American 400-meter runner Fred Kerley said. "It will be like the Olympics in Atlanta back in the day."
Coe promises he'll be fully engaged, in the driver's seat, ensuring the vacant lots of Doha become full houses in Eugene.
"We will be very, very much more involved with the local organizing committee," Coe said. "And we need to be absolutely sure, as we go forward, that we're doing that."