By Cathal Dennehy
They promised so much, these European Championships – the expectation from so many coming here was so great that living up to it was always going to be an arduous task. In truth, they didn’t quite manage it. Was it good? Yes. Was it great? No.
Maybe that’s harsh. Maybe we’ve come to view Zurich as such a mecca for athletics that we asked too much from this week – hoped, expected, demanded that every night be as thrilling as the famed annual Weltklasse meeting.
It wasn’t. Nor should it have been, really, for a European Athletics Championships is about so much more. It can only really be compared to its predecessor. In that regard, it compared quite favourably to Helsinki 2012, but then again, so would any European Championships.
That event in the Finnish capital – held as it was just a month before the London Olympics – was so diluted of talent and carried such an inconsequential feel that it only truly counted as a European Championships on paper. The real comparison should be made with Barcelona 2010, back when these Championships were a quadrennial event and fully expounded the best of Europe’s athletes. Did the Swiss version of this event top the show that the Catalans put on back in 2010? In ways, yes. In other ways, no. Overall… don’t think so.
The weather didn’t help, not that we can really hold the Local Organising Committee to account for that. The first few days, the rain pelted down intermittently and low attendances inside the Letzigrund Stadium made you wonder when this event was really going to take off, if at all.
It’s no surprise the numbers through the gates were low; daily tickets, for all those not privileged to own a personal mint, were prohibitively expensive, even for Zurich – where a simple beer and burger would usually set you back something in the region of â‚¬20.
Asking ordinary sports fans to pay over â‚¬100 for ordinary seats to some very ordinary sessions of Championship athletics is something that can’t be allowed occur at many events in the years to come. Sure, there were some great nights inside the Letzigrund. The Friday evening session – where Swiss 400m hurdler Kariem Hussein took gold with a PB of 48.96 seconds – had a constant buzz reverberating around the Letzigrund, an electricity that caught fire when the home hero of the week delivered in fine style to send the crowd into rapturous celebration.
The final day saw 17,487 spectators in attendance (87pc of the capacity), and it was just a pity for them that a great afternoon’s athletics finished with a whimper as the poster girls of the Championships – the Swiss women’s 4x100m relay team – dropped the baton just metres into the race they had all waited for.
Saying that, some of the attendances earlier in the week were poor.
Granted, some of the sessions were thin on the ground with finals to draw the crowds, but if we knew one thing about Zurich coming here, it was that it is a city that loves its athletics. Yet somehow, despite the small stadium, they never even came close to filling it until that electric Friday night.
If you needed evidence of the city’s love for the sport, it was there on the final morning as throngs four-deep lined the streets in some parts of the marathon course to do something they were unable to do for the rest of the week: watch a European Championship race without being financially fleeced.
One hundred thousand people were estimated to have watched the five free road events, despite the often incompliant weather. Inside the stadium, a total of 148,432 spectators showed up over the full week. On average, 81 percent of the seats were filled for the evening sessions. Good, yes, but not all that great. Not for Zurich.
The World Championships in Moscow last year – which attracted much flak for relatively empty grandstands early on in the Championships – managed to attract an average of 44,000 people to each evening session. Zurich, for all its prestige and aura, couldn’t manage half that.
The crowd, though, in fairness to them, were one of the most knowledgeable this writer has come across. No surprises there. The city itself, too, embraced the event with open arms. The fan zone in the Belle Vue area of the city thrived with activity each day as the public tried their hand at a range of interactive athletics games and mopped up plenty of free prizes and merchandise.
Public transport was exceptional, and the volunteers were unanimously accommodating and helpful. Security was present, but never intrusive. And unlike at the World Indoor Championships in Sopot earlier this year, the internet was reliable in the working areas for the media.
Another great aspect of these Championships was the facility to bet on the events live at the stadium, if one felt inclined to back up their apparent knowledge of the sport with some astute – or not-so-astute – investments.
They did a lot right in Zurich. Let’s be fair. One of their best moves was the hiring of Cooly – the mascot that usurped Berlino as the best in Athletics Championship history. The giant brown cow – a costume reportedly filled by a Swiss decathlete – managed to keep the crowd entertained and laughing throughout many lulls with his antics and could always be relied upon to drum up a decent atmosphere during several of the distance races.
At times, it needed it. The rain made the first few days of the Championships not just look grey, but feel it. By the weekend, though, the sun had broken out, and several athletes stepped up to make these Championships a memorable one for all the right reasons.
There was Dafne Schippers’ superb 22.03-second win in the women’s 200m, or Adam Gemilli’s sub-20 second run into a strong headwind to take the men’s title. There was Mo Farah’s facile distance double, yet again, and Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad’s middle distance dominance and frankly hilarious – if highly questionable – premature celebrations. There was Anita Wlodarczyk’s monster throw of 78.76m in the hammer, and how could we forget Yohann Diniz’s world record of 3:32:33 in the 50km race walk.
All in all, it was a good week in the Swiss capital, and Zurich can rest assured that its position as one of the great venues in world athletics is comfortably maintained.
Like I said, it was a good Championships, but not quite a great one.