Athletics: Russia under pressure over paltry crowds

The Russian authorities were coming under increasing pressure on Monday 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."

Athletics is by no means a wildly popular sport in the ice hockey- and football-mad country -- and interest can be alarmingly dependent on the success of Russian sportsmen and women.

The failure of the highly-fancied women's long jumpers -- including pin-up star Darya Klishina -- to get near the podium on Sunday night was a blow for Russia and there will be huge pressure on pole-vault legend Elena Isinbayeva to bring home gold on Tuesday night.

Russia's Rossiya One state television channel on Monday led its news bulletin with sports -- but it was not the athletics but the victory of the Russian women's epee team at the world fencing championships in Budapest.

"How can it be that the world athletics championships goes to a country that is not behind athletics?" asked leading German decathlete Pascal Behrenbruch.

According to sources familiar with the situation, actual capacity at Luzhniki has been brought down to 50,000 after sections of the stands were covered, leaving just 33,000 tickets on sale for the general public once media and guests are discounted.

The failure to fill the stadium is particularly odd given that prices are hardly exorbitant in a notoriously expensive city where a cup of coffee costs up to $10.

Prices start at just 100 rubles ($3), with plenty of seats available at less than 1,000 rubles and rising to over 2,000 rubles for the best seats.

But there is a distinct lack of buzz in the city about the hosting of the championships considered to be one of the world's biggest sporting events.

A sprinkling of modest posters are the only real evidence that something is up. The timing does not help -- Muscovites desert the city en masse in August to travel abroad or enjoy the brief Russian summer outside the city.

Sovietsky Sport said there was little tradition in Moscow of mass attendance at sporting events in recent years and it was hard to even fill the terraces in the city for big football matches.

"It seems most people are not willing to sacrifice their trip to the countryside for the sake of going to the athletics," it added.

Critics of the cavernous Luzhniki -- a local landmark built partly by volunteer labour and opened in 1956 at the height of the Cold War -- will be grateful that after the athletics showpiece the stadium is closing down for a complete renovation ahead of the World Cup.

Luzhniki will be shut down for four years, opening in time to host the 2017 Confederations Cup and then the World Cup, including the final, in 2018.