Duncan Mackay: How Qatar's sports revolution was started by a javelin

Wednesday, 14 May 2014
Duncan Mackay Last Friday (May 9) I had the good fortune to attend one of the best quality, and most enjoyable, athletics events I have ever been to. A particular highlight of the opening International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Diamond League meeting of the season was the women's 3,000 metres won by Kenya's Hellen Obiri in one of the fastest races in history.

The large and enthusiastic crowd - both men and women - were on their feet at the end, cheering on the runners in a race that went right down to the finish line. 

The fact that this took place in Doha is probably as much a surprise to you as it was to me.

I travelled to Qatar for the very first international athletics meeting held in the country in 1997, an event that did not feature any women, a fact which seems even stranger now than it did then. Back then, the offer of a trip to a country that I had barely heard of seemed a bit of a novelty, the opportunity to visit somewhere I would probably never get the chance to go to again.

The trip had its amusing moments. This included myself and a colleague from Fleet Street trying to find the bar in the Sheraton Hotel, the only good-standard hotel in Qatar at the time and certainly the only place that served alcohol. We had been told by someone who had stayed in the hotel a few months earlier that asking for the bar was a complete "no-no" in this strictly Muslim country and that we should instead seek directions to the "library".

Anyway, after we had arrived and freshened up, we decided to test this out. Off to reception we went. "Can you tell us where the 'library' is, please?" we asked. "Oh yes sir, I know exactly what you are looking for," the smiling gentleman behind the front desk replied. We were clearly all on the same page. Except, when we followed his instructions we couldn't find the "library". 

We asked another member of staff and he offered to take us there himself. But my colleague's sense of relief soon evaporated when we were led to a corner of the lobby with a few dogged-ear copies of Miss Marple and Jeffrey Archer novels. This was too much for my friend. "I want a drink!!!!" he screamed at the poor porter who couldn't understand what he had done wrong. The bemused hotel worker replied: "Why didn't you ask for the bar then sir?"

The athletics itself was dull and forgettable. Besides, it felt wrong to be a meeting where there were no women on the track or among the spectators. Among the few women that were present that night was Nawal El Moutawakel, the Moroccan who had made history when she became the first woman from a Muslim country to win an Olympic gold medal when she came first in the 400 metres hurdles at Los Angeles 1984. She vowed then that if Qatar were to be part of the athletics family then it had to be on acceptable terms which did not include discrimination. 

El Moutawakel, who in 1998 would be elected as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), spent four days after the event unsuccessfully trying to meet Qatar's then Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. But a message was passed to one of the Emir's three wives, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned. The modern-thinking Al Missned, who had already begun to assume a persona of her own, even as the Emir's other two wives remained virtually invisible, set the wheels in motion for the revolutionary move to allow women to compete.

Morocco's Nawal El Moutawakel was behind the original drive to ensure women athletes were treated equally in Qatar ©Doha Goals  Morocco's Nawal El Moutawakel was behind the original drive to ensure women athletes were treated equally in Qatar ©Doha Goals

So it was, that a year later - in what the IAAF had fittingly declared was the "Year of the Woman" - that myself and a group of colleagues travelled back to Doha to see history made. The honour of being the first female allowed to compete in Qatar fell to Finnish javelin thrower Mikaela Ingberg, winner of a bronze medal in the 1995 World Championships. 

I remember the occasion like it was yesterday. A few whistles greeted Ingberg but they died quickly in the stiflingly warm air when she stood on the end of the runway. Wearing cycling shorts, a tee-shirt and a bandanna to cover her hair, she had clearly made an effort not to inflame hostility. She was rewarded with polite applause after her victory with a throw of 63.26 metres. Women competed in half-a-dozen events, the most impressive performance coming in the 100m where Jamaica's Beverly McDonald won in a personal best of 10.99sec. All the competitors were respectful of the local dress code.

"Above the amplified metallic voice, quavering and ancient, of the muezzin calling from the mosque, you could almost hear the breaths of astonishment," I wrote in The Guardian. It felt like a seismic moment in Qatar's history but even anyone there that night would have been surprised at the waves of change that have swept over the country since. 

The crowd were almost exclusively male. But, fast forward 16 years to last Friday, and not only were women - now dressed in cut-off vests and shorts, as they would be at an event anywhere else in the world - prominent on the track, they were also hard to miss in the stands.

Many of the spectators were expat Kenyans and Ethiopians who work in Doha and had been given special time off to watch their heroes. But there were also a noticeable group of young Arab girls dressed stylishly in western denim - but with their heads covered - who were there to enjoy the athletics and the concert that took place at the end of the event. 

There being a "crowd" was something of a novelty in itself to me. Back in 1997 and 1998 there were only a handful of spectators and even as recently as 2008, the last occasion I had attended an athletics meeting in Doha, the crowd was so small as to be embarrassing. I was particularly surprised on that occasion as the Qatari capital was bidding to host the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics and I imagined local officials would have ensured the stadium was full. 

The decision to move the Diamond League event from the cavernous Khalifa International Stadium, renovated for the 2006 Asian Games, to the much more intimate 12,000-capacity Qatar SC Stadium has clearly boosted the event, as has a major marketing campaign aimed not only at attracting the locals but also the sizeable immigrant population, like the Kenyans and Ethiopians who ensured a memorable atmosphere.

Kenyan and Ethiopian supporters helped create the atmosphere which made the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Doha such a memorable occasion ©AFP/Getty ImagesKenyan and Ethiopian supporters helped create the atmosphere which made the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Doha such a memorable occasion ©AFP/Getty Images

The failure to get even on the shortlist for the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics led eventually to the Qataris switching their attention to the 2022 FIFA World Cup which they were, of course, controversially awarded. Conspiracy theorists will continue to cast doubt over their successful campaign, while treatment of the workers building the stadium will ensure Qatar remain uncomfortably in the spotlight all the way through the build-up to the tournament. 

But, from what I have seen during my visits over the last 17 years, Qatar is a country willing to learn, adapt and embrace change. Before I left Doha last weekend it was announced that it had been awarded the 2018 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, adding it to a portfolio of events that, besides the World Cup, also includes the 2014 International Aquatics Federation (FINA) World Short Course Swimming Championships, the 2015 Men's World Handball Championship and 2016 Cycling World Road Championships.

Its next target is the 2019 IAAF World Championships, where it faces opposition from Barcelona and Eugene. Doha would have had the event already if it had accepted an offer, in 2011, from the IAAF's ruling Council to award it the Championships after it had just narrowly been pipped by London for 2017. Stung by their disappointment at the time, they turned it down. 

The bid this time is likely to be unbeatable. Yes, it will undoubtedly offer financial incentives in terms of prize money and travel that its rivals will be unable to match. But that should not detract from the fact Qatar deserves to be rewarded for the incredible progress it has made in less than half a generation. It has already hosted a successful IAAF World Indoor Championships in 2010 and has consistently proved that it is a valued member of the athletics family - just like El Moutawakel hoped one day it would become. 

Bahiya Al-Hamad was one of four women in Qatar's team for London 2012 and carried the country's flag at the Opening Ceremony ©Getty ImagesBahiya Al-Hamad was one of four women in Qatar's team for London 2012 and carried the country's flag at the Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

"I hope I am alive to see women being given credit here," she had told me in Doha at that historic meeting in 1998. "Religion is in the heart, not in the way you look and this athletics breakthrough is a momentous occasion. But we must take things gently and understand the culture we are dealing with."

Back then it seemed inconceivable to believe Qatar would ever be represented by a woman in an Olympics. But, at London 2012, its team included four, including rifle shooter Bahiya Al-Hamad, who carried the country's flag at the Opening Ceremony. At Rio 2016 there are likely to be even more women in the team.

It is not unjustified to believe that if El Moutawakel's determination to ensure that women had a future in sport in Qatar had not reached the ears of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned then none of what has happened since then would have occurred, including Qatar being awarded the 2022 World Cup when Al Missned was centre stage at the celebrations. And to think it all began with a javelin throw.

Duncan Mackay is the award-winning editor of insidethegames. He previously worked for The Guardian and The Observer and his awards include British Sports Writer of the Year and British News Story of the Year in 2004 and British Sports Internet Reporter of the Year in 2009.
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