29 January 2020
With its suffocating humidity and daytime temperatures hovering around 38 degrees Celsius, Doha weather has been widely discussed among athletes and athletics officials. Photo: Reuters
With its suffocating humidity and daytime temperatures hovering around 38 degrees Celsius, Doha weather has been widely discussed among athletes and athletics officials. Photo: Reuters

How Qatar’s sporting vision failed at World Athletics

In the midst of the IAAF World Athletics Championship in Qatar, a British journalist wryly observed that even the tumbleweed had failed to turn up to Doha’s Khalifa Stadium. This was reference to another evening at the event during which crowds were so small at the host venue, they seemed almost imperceptible.

What should have been international athletics’ high profile biennial staging of its showcase event, and something of a coming out party for the small though hugely aspirational Gulf nation, instead seems destined to become a damp squib provoking all manner criticisms from around the world.

We should not be surprised at the scrutiny and negative coverage that has headed Doha’s way. Mega-events always result in a light invariably being shone on the failings of host nations, although in Qatar’s case it was inevitably going to be sharper and brighter.

There is something about this small nation that rankles with many people, which at times is entirely justified but can otherwise be unfair. The country has long been accused of buying its way to global sporting prominence, leading some to label it as inauthentic and as predatory because of the way it has acquired assets, harvested athletes and sought to exert its power.

Some observers claim that Qatar bribed its way to the hosting decision that will see the country stage football’s World Cup in 2022. Unfortunately for government in Doha, this seems to have become a label that has stuck. Indeed, several critics have recently continued in this vein, suggesting impropriety in the award of the IAAF event to Doha.

A number of people believe that credence is given to such a view by the hot, humid conditions in which the athletics event is being run. Staging events during the early hours each morning has merely exacerbated this view, especially as athletes have competed in either an empty stadium or in the empty night time streets of Doha. This has resulted in observers calling this year’s IAAF World Championship ‘a catastrophe’.

The general global disquiet needs to be set in the context of enduring concerns about immigrant workers. Whilst Qatar’s World Cup organizers have continued to emphasize that sport is driving tangible labor market change, organizations such as Human Rights Watch remain concerned. Comments on social media typically cast the country as exploitative and arrogantly dismissive.

Aside from these now familiar criticisms, the sparsity of crowds in Doha had already been predicted. Pre-event stories circulated that school children and immigrant workers were being given free event tickets to ensure the Khalifa Stadium appeared full. However, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, in 2015 at the Handball World Championship there were reports that foreign fans were bought in to fill venues.

Otherwise, issues with public transport, Doha’s sometimes notorious traffic jams, and the price and availability of alcohol have also appeared in what seems like a never ending catalogue of failings that cast Qatar as a wholly inappropriate event host. Rather than a catalogue, perhaps it is more the case of a chronicle of death foretold. Many wanted Qatar to stumble and so the world has sought to craft a narrative that upholds preconceptions and prejudices.

Still, at least those spectators who have turned up to watch the championship have been able to luxuriate in the comfort of an air-conditioned outdoor stadium. However, even this raises questions, not least in terms of the costs that such facilities inflict upon the environment. Qatari government officials have countered such claims, though environmental experts remain unconvinced.

All of which poses a simple though profound question: where does this all leave Qatar? As a small, seemingly ostentatious oil rich nation on the lookout for friends, its government may see its current travails as being mere bumps in the road to the country realizing its much grander, ultimate 2030 vision.

Qatar is a geopolitically vulnerable nation, overly dependent on revenues drawn from its oil and gas reserves, caught between bigger, stronger, more powerful neighbors. Sport is supposed to be one of the means through which it can counter these strategic weaknesses. By embedding itself in the global sport landscape, government in Doha has sought to build the country’s security whilst diversifying its economy.

This has gone hand-in-hand with an agenda designed to simultaneously fulfil both domestic and international agendas. At home, Qatar faces serious problems with social cohesion and sometimes poor public health, issues the government feels can be addressed through sport. Externally, sport has been employed as an instrument of soft power, and a tool of diplomacy and statecraft.

If one believes in the power of sport to effect change, then one consequently has to give credit to Qatar for the expansive nature of its vision and ambitions. Its strategy formulation is strong, the state’s commitment to sport is striking, and the resourcing of sport dwarfs that of many other countries.

Whilst big money and good policy may seem necessary for establishing the prominence of sport as a national development strategy, they alone are insufficient. Realism and a keen appreciation of strategic implementation somehow seem to have evaded Qatar. So too, for that matter, has it evaded those sports governing bodies seduced by the economic and financial benefits suggested by awarding sports mega-events to a country with a population of little more than two million people.

Perhaps Qatar will learn from the chastening lessons of staging this year’s IAAF event, though one senses that the carrousel of consternation will turn again for Qatar, and that further bright lights will again be shining on it as football’s biggest competition draws closer.

Yet it could be that the country’s government officials do not care about the scrutiny; they may not care either about the sparse crowds inside the Khalifa Stadium; they might even be immune the enduring criticism of their country.

And one can understand why. Despite a decade of criticism and adversity, Qatar remains as host of the 2022 World Cup. It will not lose the right to stage this event, even though some of its near neighbors have tried to wrestle control of it away from Doha. In the staging of such sports events, while Western critics may obsess about heat, humidity and hostility, those sitting in the Qatari government ministries in Doha’s West Bay may instead be seeing safety and security.

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Empty seats at Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium during an event at the ongoing World Athletics Championships. Photo: Reuters

IAAF President Sebastian Coe played down the empty seats at the IAAF World Athletics Championships 2019 in Qatar. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.