Basketball teams talk about their home crowd as a “sixth man”, an advantage they have on the court. The biggest surprise to me about the 2010 World Indoor Championships in Doha has been Ethiopia’s third athlete in nearly all their events.
Unlike the outdoor championships and Olympics, where each country gets three entries (if qualified), the limit is two for indoors. The defending-champion “bye” doesn’t exist indoors, so there are never more than two athletes from any country in any race. But for some reason there are around 500 Ethiopian fans in the Aspire Dome every night. There was a small, vocal section for the rounds on Friday. There were three sections on Saturday, and they were chanting and cheering from the moment Meseret Defar stepped on the track until Deresse Mekonnen received his gold medal at the end of the evening. Competition isn’t due to start for the final session for another 45 minutes, but there are five sections full of Ethiopians who have been here over half an hour and have spent much of that time dancing, chanting and singing as though they were waiting for a football match and not a track meet.
They love their own team, of course, but unlike some meets with a large Ethiopian fan base (I’m thinking of the Boston Indoor Games) they’ve been more than happy to cheer athletes in events without Ethiopian entrants. They’ll clap for the high jump, chant for the hurdlers, and they’ve delayed the starts of more than one sprint race because they simply won’t be quiet for the start.
It’s not clear to me whether these fans are Ethiopian expats living and working in Qatar, or if they traveled here from Ethiopia (which is not so far away, really). Ticket prices are not steep; the primary expense of coming here is travel. Still, these fans are on the corners and in the upper deck: the cheap seats. basically. However they’re here, they’ve utterly transformed the atmosphere of the arena. This would not be the same event without them, and it would be much less than it is now.