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Athletes left staring into empty space at Luzhniki

Meghan Beesley of Britain competes in the women's 400 metres hurdles heat during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki Stad
Meghan Beesley of Britain competes in the women's 400 metres hurdles heat during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki Stad

By Alison Wildey

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Athletes were again left staring into empty space on the third day of the world athletics championships at Luzhniki Stadium where the lack of crowds has become as big a talking point as the performances on the track.

"It's dead, there's no atmosphere," Olympic champion Felix Sanchez told reporters after winning his 400 meters hurdles heat on Monday.

"It's like night and day compared to London last year," he said of the 2012 Games where the Dominican was cheered to victory by 80,000 screaming fans.

Sanchez, however, said the lack of numbers would not affect his concentration. "I'm a veteran, I've been to four Olympics and eight world championships so you learn to tune it out," he said.

After the unprecedented support in London, where every session was packed out, many of the same athletes have been plying their trade almost anonymously, with only the world's media for company at the event which began on Saturday.

Not even the presence of the sport's biggest name, Usain Bolt, and the showpiece men's 100 meters final on Sunday could persuade the locals out of their homes and the Jamaican celebrated his win in a stadium two-thirds full.

The morning sessions, which consist of heats and combined events, have been hit hardest and the stands are practically deserted as world-class athletes at the peak of fitness ply their trade while the noise of the PA system echoes unintelligibly around the vast stadium.

It is left to a few hundred dedicated Ukrainians, all dressed in blue or yellow tops, to brighten the atmosphere by enthusiastically clapping and cheering their country's athletes, though their isolated outbursts of noise serve only to emphasize the emptiness.

The vast Luzhniki Stadium, which hosted the 1980 Olympics and will be the site of the 2018 World Cup final, has a capacity of 81,000 which has been reduced to 50,000 for the championships, with around 35,000 tickets made available to the public for each session.

Ticket prices start at 100 roubles ($3.04) and were still as little as 300 for the men's 100m final.

Organizers said they had sold out for the final weekend of August 17-18, which includes all four relay finals, but their claim to have sold an average 80 percent of the tickets for championships already looks hopelessly off the mark.

Last month the rugby sevens World Cup also took place in a deserted Luzhniki, despite optimistic sales claims by Organizers.

Pole vault world record holder and IAAF Vice-President Sergey Bubka blamed the hot, humid weather in Moscow for the empty seats this week.

"It was hot and very sunny and I know for Muscovites - they always go to their dacha (summer homes), they go outside, and maybe someone has bought a ticket and they don't attend," he said at the weekend.

"We insisted very seriously and very strongly regarding a promotion campaign and a lot of money was invested. They have special spectator program."

But the six-times world champion and the greatest-ever pole vaulter conceded that when he was competing, a full stadium would often spur the athletes on to even more astounding feats.

"If the stadium was empty, I was really disappointed because you try to do the best and you receive excellent motivation. It is great to see the full stadium, because they are behind you, they help you to perform."

($1 = 32.8562 Russian roubles)

(Writing by Alison Wildey)

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