Alan Hubbard: Qatar means business – sports business
Monday, 29 April 2013
Over the next decade I doubt there will be a global event that this tiny but immensely rich nation, a peninsular just 100 miles long and 50 miles wide, a flat thumb jutting into the Persian Gulf, will not have either acquired or unashamedly tried desperately hard to do so.
It has been given, albeit controversially, the 2022 FIFA football World Cup, bid unsuccessfully for the 2016 and 2020 Olympics and undoubtedly will bid again for 2024 – or until it finally lands them.
As one of their senior Olympic Committee officials says: "It is in our DNA for Qatar to bid for the Olympic Games until we win them. This region deserves to host them."
It is a compelling argument as I discovered on a recent visit – my first to the capital Doha, where insidethegames editor Duncan Mackay was making his 22nd! Over the years he has been intrigued to witness Qatar's gradual emergence as the sporting super-power of the Middle East. But for a first-timer like me it was a breath-drawing experience to observe the acceleration of that process, as evidenced by the stupendous facilities at the renowned Aspire zone, arguably the world's finest indoor all-sports complex, complete with its own state-of-the-art hospital, an amazing example of just what money can buy.
And there is plenty of it in Qatar, rich beyond virtually anyone's dreams thanks to their oil and natural gas resources.
But why is so much of it being spent on sport? An intriguing question, and a puzzling one.
It perhaps no exaggeration to say that if Rio 2016 was to go belly-up Qatar could step in and hold the next Summer Olympics given a month or two to build any facilities that aren't already there. And most of them are.
While that may never happen one still has to marvel at the resourcefulness of a county which has no great sporting traditions of its own yet literally "aspires" to reinvent itself as a global sports power, perhaps even its epicentre in 30 years time.
Already it has overtaken Dubai in this Arab spring of sport, planning to host over 40 international events this year with more than £150 billion ($233 billion/€178 billion) being spent on new stadia over the next decade, the contracts mainly with European firms.
The prime purpose of our visit was to see Qatar's newest sporting project, its Olympic and Sports Museum, the largest exhibition of its kind covering both ancient and modern Games.
For a country that has never held the Games and is a continent and a culture removed from Olympia itself, it is a remarkable tribute to Olympism and a further indication of Qatar's desire to play host to the world's biggest sporting event in the foreseeable future.
Put together by German archaeologists and historian Dr Christian Wacker, unlike most Olympic museums –and there are some a dozen and a half around the world – it depicts the history of the Games warts and all – boycotts, doping, murder and mayhem. The lot.
There is a unique collection of Torches from every Olympics and even an inbuilt mini-stadium, complete with stands and a track where visitors can trot around then mount the podium to take the Olympic oath.
Part of the exhibition will be temporarily on show at Manchester's National Football Museum in July. Well worth a visit especially as the Olympic Museum planned for London's Olympic Park has been shelved because of costs.
Maybe they should have asked the rolling-in-it Qataris to sponsor it.
However, there is scepticism in Europe at Qatar's extraordinary largesse, mainly over the World Cup and the fact that the continent faces a possible winter of discontent in 2022 because of the heat of a Gulf summer.
The consensus is shifting towards UEFA President Michel Platini's notion of switching the tournament to wintertime, and the resulting row notably emanating from England, over the possibility of disrupting the European schedules has caused the Qatar organisers to become rather sniffy.
They are currently declining interviews with western media, which they claim has unfairly savaged them over Qatar, ranked 106th in world football, managing to persuade FIFA that daytime temperatures of 40 degrees plus will not be potentially disastrous.
They are also sensitive about allegations that have appeared in France that there corruption was involved in winning votes among African nations for the 2022 competition.
"All we have had is negative publicity," said a source close to the Organising Committee explaining why they have decided, for the moment, to shut up shop. "This is FIFA's problem, not ours."
The issue remains to be resolved but there are certainly pros and cons as to whether hypo-rich Qatar – the world's wealthiest nation per capita according to the Forbes Magazine list – is suited to be a World Cup host.
In essence, it will be rather like staging the World Cup on the Isle of Wight.
With petrol at 15p ($0.23/€0.18) a litre, the same as bottled water, public transport is almost non-existent as most of Qatar's population of 250,000 (boosted by 1.7 million migrant workers) use cars. The non-elected Government says a metro system is under construction.
Qatar is small, spotless and safe, sat amidst one of the world's most unstable and explosive regions. But expect no Bahrain-type demos here.
World Cup fans should note there are beaches, but no boozers (though alcohol is available to foreigners in some hotels – at a price). Copacabana it isn't.
With Qatar's oil and gas reserves comes a lot of hot air – especially over the climate. It can be much cooler in the evenings when most matches will be played (there is only a two-hour time difference with the United Kingdom) and Qataris argue that players were in more danger from the altitude in Mexico City than they will be from the heat in Doha.
The dozen venues will be air conditioned, on and off the pitch – the cooling system supplied by English company Arup is said to reduce temperatures in the stadiums by up to 20 degrees.
Certainly at Doha's Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium where Raul's Al Sadd won the Qatar Stars League while I was there had air con blowing up from beneath the seats, which made it distinctly chilly around the nether regions!
Doha also found fame when the Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards made a splash when he stumbled into a water feature, and Rio Ferdinand paid a flying visit to give visit to give television station Al Jazeera the benefit f his punditry rather than turn out for England.
What else? Well, Qatar officially has the world's best airline in Qatar Airways; English is widely spoken (it was a British protectorate until 1971) and the grub is eclectic and very good.
Though should you fancy a hot dog it will be beef and not pork. It might even be camel as Boris Johnson discovered on a recent visit to these parts. I've tasted worse.
Together with Jordan, Islamic Qatar is also more enlightened than most Middle East nations on the emancipation of women in sport.
While they fielded only four women at London 2012 unlike the token duo from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, they were there on merit, having qualified. And their flag bearer was a woman, shooter Bahiya Al Hamad. Over 200 Qatari women took part in both the Asian and Arab Games.
All of which may be designed to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of Qatar's worthiness to host the Games, despite twice being rejected.
Should it ever happen, the Olympics, like the World Cup, will never have a more opulent stage than in this sporting Goliath of the Gulf where, inevitably it all seems to come down to money.
"God has granted us this huge wealth and it is up us to use it responsibly," says its Olympic committee spokesman Hassan Abdulla Al-Mohamedi. "But to do what Qatar has done – and is determined to do in future – you need not only the wealth but the will."
Make no mistake. Qatar means business. Sports business.
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Games, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.