Right after the Budapest World Champs, Cathal Dennehy, one of our sports most prolific, thoughtful and well-travelled writers, went to China for the return of the Diamond League. This is his piece on his return to China. 

It had been a little over four years since the Diamond League paid a visit to China – the Shanghai meeting in May 2019 occurring about eight months before the nation went into lockdown, and with that, its habit of hosting major sporting events was put firmly into cold storage. The pandemic came and (kind of) went in the years since, with China among the last to open its doors to the world, picking up life where it had once left off.

This year’s Diamond League meeting in Xiamen seemed shrouded in mystery during the build-up as a result. Would the world’s top athletes actually travel? Would the crowds turn up? Would the hosts have the know-how to pull off a meeting of this size, having never done so before?

Having spent the past several days in Xiamen – a city of five million, which is about a 600km drive northeast of Hong Kong – the answer to all the above was a resounding yes.

From Yaroslava Mahuchikh to Soufiane El Bakkali to Grant Holloway, Marco Arop to Hugues Fabrice Zango to Ivana Vuleta, a slew of world champions made the trek to be here, despite the exhausting travel and the inevitable emotional comedown after their brilliant week in Budapest.

Soufiane EL BAKKALI wins the Men’s 3000m Steeplechase in a time of 8:10.31 at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Xiamen on 2 September 2023, photo by Matthew Quine for Diamond League AG.

The seeds of this event were sown four years ago when Chinese multinational conglomerate Wanda Group signed a 10-year title sponsorship of the Diamond League. Among the goals of that agreement was to bring “top-class sporting events to China”, said its CEO.

The years since have seen various events planned and then cancelled, the fear of Covid-19 lingering much longer in this part of the world than elsewhere. This year’s Diamond League meeting was originally scheduled for Shenzhen, but it was announced in early August that it would be moved to the port city of Xiamen, home to the Egret Stadium.

Having been inside many of the world’s best arenas to witness elite-level athletics over the past two decades – from various Olympic to World Championship stadiums – it was clear from the first sight that Egret Stadium is right up there with the best.

It has a price tag to match its magnificence, coming in at just under $1.2 billion, or 8.5 billion Yuan. Construction began in August 2020, with the 2023 Asian Cup football tournament one of its first planned events. However, in May last year, as China continued to pursue its zero-Covid policy, that tournament was moved to Qatar. As such, the first major event this stadium would host upon its completion in August this year was the Xiamen Diamond League.

Yaroslava MAHUCHIKH wins the Women’s High Jump with a height of 2.02m at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Xiamen on 2 September 2023, photo by Matthew Quine for Diamond League AG.

It is, truly, a piece of architectural splendour, its roof a flowing white canopy that resembles an aerodynamic cycling helmet, boasting a capacity of 60,000 for football games that gets reduced to 53,000 for athletics events.

The stadium was roughly half full for Saturday night’s Diamond League, a decent turnout for an event that was only announced here about four weeks before the athletes took to their marks. To float around the stadium the day before the event was to witness the huge enthusiasm the locals had for the sport and the appreciation they carried for the stars who had crossed the world to be part of it.

Marcell Jacobs, Christian Coleman and Yohan Blake could barely walk 20 metres without being asked for an autograph or selfie, and they obliged the legions of young, adoring fans.

Christian COLEMAN wins the Men’s 100m in a time of 9.83s at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Xiamen on 2 September 2023, photo by Matthew Quine for Diamond League AG

On the day of the meeting, they filed into their seats well ahead of the main programme, creating an atmosphere that would rival any Diamond League for even the mediocre national-level events.

The depth in some disciplines lagged behind other Diamond Leagues, but that was to be expected, given the timing of this event – six days after the World Championships ended – and the distance athletes had to travel.

Still, most disciplines fully held their own, with world champion Marileidy Paulino blitzing her rivals to win the 400m in 49.36, Christian Coleman winning a loaded 100m in a joint world lead of 9.83, Yaroslava Mahuchikh setting a world lead of 2.02m to win the high jump, and Ivana Vuleta soaring 6.88m to win the long jump.

For many, this was an opportunity to right some wrongs that occurred in Budapest, and chief among them was Kirani James, who edged a brilliant home-straight battle with Quincy Hall to win the 400m in 44.38. Hansle Parchment might have been the most impressive winner of all, the Olympic champion recovering from a sluggish start to sweep to victory in the 110m hurdles in 12.96, with three-time world champion Grant Holloway’s chance elapsing after he clattered the final barrier.

Hansle PARCHMENT wins the Men’s 110m Hurdles in a time of 12.96s at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Xiamen on 2 September 2023, photo by Matthew Quine for Diamond League AG

The women’s discus provided a duel that captivated the tens of thousands in the stands, drawing the biggest cheer of the night in the final round as local star Feng Bin unleashed a 67.41m throw to overtake Sandra Perkovic, who had led from the outset with 67.32m. Perkovic was upbeat despite the manner of her defeat, having thrown a huge season’s best; the Croatian engaged with the crowd and appreciated their interest and attention in an event that’s sometimes overlooked. But here, it had centre stage.

From speaking to several athletes and those involved behind the scenes in Xiamen, the overall feeling was that the event had been a big success. Yes, there’d been a few organisational glitches here and there, which was to be expected when bringing an event of this size to a place like this with relatively short notice. But things had generally gone smoothly, with a huge team of volunteers greeting the travelling hordes with warmth and enthusiasm – leaving them with a desire to return.

Xiamen might have been one of the last stops on this year’s Diamond League circuit, but in 2024 it will be the curtain-raiser, taking place on 20 April. A week later, Shanghai will return to the Diamond League after a five-year hiatus.

As China opens its doors to tourists again, it is slowly doing the same when it comes to major sporting events. There’s little doubt that the Diamond League should maintain a presence here, not just for commercial reasons but for the sake of growing the sport outside of its traditional hotspots of popularity.

Having been missing from the Diamond League circuit for the past three years, it’s now just seven months until China will get the chance to welcome the world’s best athletes again. Now that Xiamen has done so once and done it well, it should be even better the second time around.