Business Of Sports: Athletics Qatar-strophe puts World Cup on red alert

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 14, 2019 - October 20, 2019.
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As own goals go, they don’t come much worse. The fastest humans on the planet racing in an empty stadium; half the women’s marathon field collapsing; migrant workers paid more to fill the stands than to build them. Athletics — the blue-riband event of the Olympics — has put football’s World Cup on red alert.

The just-finished World Championships in

Qatar was never meant to be a rehearsal for the 2022 extravaganza in the same country, but many of the worst fears about staging major sports events in the tiny Gulf nation have been realised.

Ludicrous midnight starting times for the

marathons scarcely lessened the debilitating toll of sauna-like conditions: The women’s race began in 32°C weather with 74% humidity. Someone has to win but Kenya’s Ruth Chepngetich’s time was 15 minutes slower than her best and the slowest in the event’s history.

Of 68 starters, 28 (41%) failed to finish and these are the world’s elite athletes. A makeshift hospital at the line received runners on stretchers at regular intervals. Flustered officials were seen trying to prevent anyone from filming the scene.

A week later and with slightly less steamy conditions, the men’s race was spared a similar carnage. But the winning time — two hours, 10 minutes and 40 seconds — was what the top guys were running in the 1970s. Above all else, it was short-changing athletes who had trained to a competitive peak.

And the men’s event was another ghostly run in eerie silence. The marathon has long been a spectator sport with big city events around the world seeing millions line the route. But not here. Not at midnight.

Only after the organisers panicked were there more than the proverbial “two men and a dog” in the stadium. Relatives were easy for competitors to spot and when new darling of the sprints, Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith, won the 200m gold medal, her mother told her: “I’ve seen more people watching you train.”

Huge banners swathed the empty seats but could not hide the embarrassment. Like a tin-pot dictator staging a rally, the hosts brought in school kids and civil servants. They even bribed the poor souls toiling on the infrastructure for the World Cup with the bonus of an unscheduled break. But eight-hour evening sessions stretched everyone’s patience.

To be fair, the Qataris did turn up in force to hail their own medal winners and filled the Khalifa stadium with a lively atmosphere. But for the rest, world champions were mostly greeted by echoes.

The absurdity of staging the event in a country of just 2.8 million people, of whom 88% are non-residents, was laid bare. Nor is there any tradition for athletic pursuits — hardly surprising given the hostility of the climate.

But this is the same hothouse that will stage the world’s biggest sporting event in just over three years’ time and require a major disruption of the European league schedules to do so.

Hopes that it might attract a wider audience across the Middle East have been dashed by a political boycott: Qatar having been ostracised by its neighbours for pursuing closer ties with Iran. A recent Asia Cup tie against the United Arab Emirates was dubbed the “Blockade derby” and when Qatar beat Japan in the finals, Saudi newspapers performed semantic somersaults to avoid mentioning the winners.

But football should still see far bigger crowds that may at least be comfortable inside the stadiums. The lone success of the championships was the air-conditioning: contrary to some predictions, it worked and was pleasantly cool. But what of the great outdoors?

Participating nations bring fans with them although — given the restrictive social mores of the country — only a token representation is likely in 2022. With the country already a turnoff for tens of millions, this event will only have convinced more to stay away.

Anyone watching the Rugby World Cup (RWC), which was going on simultaneously to huge crowds and enthusiasm in Japan, could not help but compare the two. Population-wise there is no comparison between Japan’s 126 million and Qatar’s 2.8 million but in the way the two hosts have embraced their respective events, the contrast was just as stark.

All this was widely predicted and the blame lies more with the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), whose former president Lamine Diack is under house arrest, than Qatar. Allegations of corruption have been well documented over the award of this event as well as the World Cup.

Of the original Fifa committee of 22 that chose Qatar, 11 have either been fined, suspended, banned for life or prosecuted. Just imagine how different it would be if any of the rival bids had been accepted — they were from the US, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Major sporting events are meant to be festivals in which the host nation takes the lead away from the arena. Think of Malaysia’s hosting of the 1998 Commonwealth Games and the role of thousands of volunteers. The key to success is in-house: before the RWC kicked off, 96% of tickets were sold, a vast majority to Japanese fans.

The IAAF knew the risks just as Fifa did. What happened in Qatar will send a shiver all the way to Fifa’s headquarters in Switzerland and throughout football. The World Cup is the governing body’s main source of income and smaller nations depend on its handouts. It is in danger of being decimated.

No matter what spin is put on this championships, it will be hard to shrug off headlines like: “Horror Show”, “Disaster”, “Everyone’s a loser”, “Catastrophe”, “Classic mega event failing”. Yet, IAAF president Sebastian Coe tried.

Not since the infamous Iraq Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, maintained that all was going well for Saddam Hussain when American tanks rumbled behind him have we heard a speech so removed from reality as his closing words. “The best we’ve had: we’ve brought it to a new region,” he trilled.

Which planet was he on, the media and athletes wondered. One critic quipped: “It’s like a film review of Titanic that only mentions Kate Winslet’s hair”. The UK’s Daily Express warned: “The next World Cup is an accident waiting to happen.”

What looks like a small herd of gleaming white elephants can already be spotted against desert sands as tens of thousands toil away on eight new stadiums. And thanks to the air-conditioners, they are costing about US$7,000 a seat — three times more than a normal stadium.

The combined cost will be about US$10 billion but, in a commendable step towards conservation, the Ras Abu Abboud Stadium will be movable and

reusable. Using shipping containers as modular building blocks, it will be dismantled and offered to anyone who wants it. Just as well as one PA reporter sent to cover a top league game recently found no attendance figure was released so did a head count. It was 155.

But despite the dire warnings coming true, Simon Chadwick, a renowned professor of sports enterprises at Salford Business School in Manchester, maintained that Qatar will be unfazed by the headlines. He told AFP: “When you think of England and Brazil, you think of football. Qatar wants to be viewed in the same way.”

He added that [by doing all this] Qatar has “a degree of protection against some of the threats [from its neighbours].” Qatar may feel safer but football does not.

Bob Holmes is a longtime sports writer specialising in football

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