THE sport of athletics has been battling against multiple threats for a while now, but once every couple of years, it has been able to pull an ace from its sleeve.

Bedecked in gold, and beaming from one side of his face to the other, Usain Bolt has assumed centre stage at Olympic Games and World Championships to banish all thoughts of drugs, corruption and the myriad of other issues that have threatened to push athletics to the sporting margins. Win the sprint double, break a world record or two, produce that archer pose, and suddenly everything seems right with the world again.

Not anymore. Bolt is gone, even retirement catches up with the sporting immortals, but as a new World Championships begin in Doha tomorrow, so many of the problems that he previously obscured remain. The fear for an embattled IAAF must be that without their ringleader, the rest of the circus looks considerably less appealing.

For what should be the centrepiece of the sport, the World Athletics Championships are taking place in front of a backdrop that is seriously compromised. As ever, the spectre of drug-taking looms large. Things have moved on slightly in the last four or five years, since revelations of state-sponsored Russian doping brought athletics and a number of other Olympic sports to their knees, but even the most blinkered of optimists would balk from suggesting the problem is solved.

There will be no Russian team competing in Doha, indeed a new scandal is brewing in the wake of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s revelation that reports from a Moscow drug-testing lab were manipulated before being delivered earlier this year, and Kenyan athletes have also come under suspicion after a German broadcaster claimed doping officials in Kenya were routinely covering up tests to allow athletes to take the blood-boosting drug, EPO. Calls for Kenya to receive the same blanket ban as Russia were rejected, but investigations remain ongoing.

The IAAF is also wrestling with the complex issue of how to deal with intersex athletes such as Caster Semenya, whose testosterone levels currently prevent her from competing in female competition. Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion, is awaiting an appeal against the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to side with the IAAF’s ruling, which effectively ordered her to take testosterone-suppressing drugs if she wanted to race as a woman. The same judgement means that Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui, who won silver and bronze behind Semenya at the 2016 Olympics, will not be competing in Doha either.

Then, there is the choice to hold this week’s championships in Doha in the first place. Like FIFA, who awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the IAAF appeared to prioritise money over sporting considerations when they elected to stage the World Championships in Qatar’s capital. In the wake of 2017’s successful World Championships in London, when every session was packed out, the sight of this week’s action is going to jar.

The IAAF insist their decision to almost half the capacity of Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium to 21,000 is not simply an attempt to reduce the number of empty seats, and have rejected suggestions that migrant workers are being bused in to flesh out attendances, but while 660,000 tickets were sold in London, earlier this week it was claimed total ticket sales for Doha had only just passed the 50,000 mark.

A number of leading athletes have expressed their unhappiness at the choice of Doha, most notably because of the extreme heat that has forced the World Championships to be pushed back to the end of September. The marathon will start at midnight so athletes do not have to run in temperatures approaching 40C. Mo Farah took one look at the schedule, and decided he would head to Chicago instead.

A championships devoid of superstar names, played out in a soulless, empty stadium, with no one quite sure if the winners are taking drugs or not. No wonder there are concerns that the world will decide to look the other way.

The one saving grace is that athletics has been here before, plenty of times actually, and the quality of the sporting spectacle has transformed perceptions. There is always the possibility of another Bolt bursting on to the scene, and the IAAF will be desperately hoping that proves the case this week.

In terms of the sprints, Noah Lyles is Bolt’s likeliest successor, a brash 22-year-old American who back-flips, raps and recently modelled at Paris Fashion Week. He talks the talk, boasting he is ready to break Bolt’s 200m world record, and in an era of social media memes, that matters. Can he walk the walk this week?

He will have to go some to outperform Belgian heptathlete Nafissatou Thiam, whose haul of Olympic, World and European gold medals enables her to consider herself an all-time great. Her battle with Briton Katarina Johnson-Thompson should be one of the highlights of the Championships, and it is Johnson-Thompson’s misfortune that she finds herself having to take on such a rival. In any other era, she would be a multiple gold medallist herself.

The Liverpudlian remains one of the British team’s leading medal hopes, along with Dina Asher-Smith, whose charge up the sprinting rankings in the last 12 months has been nothing short of sensational.

Asher-Smith has a good chance of becoming the first British woman to win an individual sprint medal at a World Championships since Kathy Smallwood-Cook in 1983. Given that she will compete in the 100m, 200m and as part of the British team in the 4x100m relay, it is not inconceivable that she could leave Doha with three medals around her neck.

In terms of North-East interest, the male sprint relay will be one of the main places to look, with Teessider Richard Kilty captaining the British squad as he makes his fourth appearance at a World Championships. A sprint-relay specialist, Kilty will be part of a British team that should challenge the Americans and Jamaicans.

Northallerton’s Marc Scott competes in the men’s 5,000m, while Alnwick’s Laura Weightman also steps up to 5,000m, having previously made a World final at 1,500m. If either were to make the top ten, they would have had a successful week.