Nick Butler
Nick ButlerWhen arriving in Doha last Wednesday (October 29) alongside two other journalists, we were asked whether we wished to travel together in one car to our hotel from the airport, or separately in different vehicles. I knew then that our whistle-stop two-day visit was going to be a step up in comfort and efficiency from what we were normally used to.

It is fair to say that Qatar, a country still relatively unknown internationally as recently as the turn of the century, has generated much attention in recent years: for political and commercial reasons but also for sporting ones.

The Gulf nation's successful bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup - in our Olympic-themed eyes the second biggest event in sport - has provoked huge attention, and a lot of it has been far from positive.

But, it is also important to highlight the good work the country has done in a sporting sense. There is much.

Over the next 12 months, Qatar will host 43 major international sporting events, including World Championships in squash, swimming, handball, boxing and Para-athletics. At a time when there is much apathy towards bidding for major events in other parts of the world, this contribution should not be underplayed. Only Russia, with its "Decade of Sport", comes close to matching the oil and gas-rich nation in the sheer quantity of events taking place.

After the World Cup in 2022, the Olympic Games would be an obvious next step, and, presumably, the culmination of this sporting ambition. Following failed bids for the 2016 and 2020 editions, officials in Doha are being very coy on whether a bid for the 2024 Games will be launched at this stage.

"It is too early to say," Qatar Olympic Committee secretary general Sheikh Saoud bin Adbulrahman Al Thani said, before adding with a smile: "When we do decide, you will be the first to know".

At the moment, the focus is on Doha's bid for the 2019 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships. This was also the reason for our visit, to coincide with an inspection by the IAAF Evaluation Commission. Three years ago, Doha suffered a narrow defeat to a very strong London bid for the 2017 edition. This time, they believe they have improved upon and learnt much from their first attempt, and are seen as strong favourites against bids from Barcelona and Eugene.

The World Championships in 2019 would be held in the Khalifa International Stadium, a facility currently still undergoing renovation work ©Doha 2019The World Championships in 2019 would be held in the Khalifa International Stadium, a facility currently still undergoing renovation work ©Doha 2019

With action to be held at the renovated Khalifa International Stadium, the bid will feature marathon races held in the dark on specially lit roads, as well as an innovative Athletes' Village within a residential development project at Msheireb Properties. This would mark the first World Championships in which athletes live alongside the local population rather than cocooned in a hotel.

More generally, it is hoped the bid will act as a catalyst for athletics in the Middle East, a region that has never hosted an outdoor IAAF World Championships before, while it would also help develop female sport and bring a sense of unity to a divided region, it is claimed. 

Holding the Championships at the end of September and the beginning of October is a way to avoid the searing summer heat associated with the Gulf, and while daytime temperatures could still soar as high as 35 degrees, this is no hotter than weather seen at other championships of the recent past, as well as what can be expected at next year's event in Beijing.

Much attention is being taken to ensure appropriate conditions for workers, with commitments from all parties that standards have been set and will be maintained. With empty seats seen at the Khalifa Stadium at international football matches, failing to fill a 45,000 to 47,000 capacity venue is another concern. Empty seats were a common sight at last year's World Championships in Moscow, and even more so at the recent Asian Games in Incheon, and this does detract from the spectacle of an event.

By means of comparison, in athletics mad Eugene, where competition would be held in the smaller Hayward Field venue, a full house could be virtually guaranteed. But the popularity of athletics in Qatar cannot be underplayed, and the country's annual international meeting, held annually in one form or another since 1997, and currently the first stop on the lucrative Diamond League circuit, is renowned for strong support and a raucous atmosphere.

The next and final test for Doha, as for Barcelona and Eugene, will come in Monaco on November 18, where all three will present to the IAAF before a decision is made following a report from Sebastian Coe, vice-president of the world governing body who is heading the Evaluation Commission. 

The IAAF Evaluation Commission, led by vice-president and former London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe, touring Doha's facilities ©ITGThe IAAF Evaluation Commission, led by vice-president and former London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe, touring Doha's facilities ©ITG

But Doha 2019, or indeed any other major event, is just one drop of oil in a vast barrel of Qatari sporting investment. It was the sheer extent of this investment that struck me most during my visit.

On the first day we started by visiting the Qatar Olympic Academy, a new state-of-the-art facility training the next generation of Arab-speaking sports administrators. After a swift stop to witness a series of basketball matches for the Qatari youth as part of a nationwide school sports programme, we headed to the anti-doping laboratory, the first of its kind in the region, it is claimed.

Visiting the laboratory, currently in the final stages of being accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, was a somewhat surreal experience. While the walls were covered with Quran quotes and pictures of animals, the rooms contained equipment to test for erythropoietin (EPO) and to measures changes in the body's composition. It is a way to further Qatar's contribution to the sports world.

Next up was my highlight, the Aspetar Hospital, billed as the first specialised orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital in the Gulf region. With experts drawn from all over the world, it contained equipment I did not even know existed, including an array of anti-gravity and underwater treadmills, as well as 25 two-person altitude rooms, enough space to house two football teams.

It is no wonder the facility is being used by an abundance of international talent, ranging from Bayern Munich during their winter break, to the Welsh Rugby team via Algerian and Ivory Coast football teams ahead of the FIFA World Cup earlier this year, not to mention leading athletes, including sprinter Justin Gatlin and Doha 2019 Ambassador, and two-time Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams.

The Aspetar Hospital is the first specialised orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital in the Gulf region ©Aspetar HospitalThe Aspetar Hospital is the first specialised orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital in the Gulf region ©Aspetar Hospital

While a lot has been written about the large number of Qatari athletes who have been imported from elsewhere - something only too obvious during the athletics competition at the Asian Games - it was refreshing to see the focus on developing home-grown talent. At the Aspire Academy, every Qatari child between the ages of four and 12 is tested for their sporting potential, with an emphasis on nurturing the best talent rather than adopting a "survival of the fittest" approach.

"We don't have the numbers to adopt the Chinese or American approach, where if some don't make it, others take their place," said the facilities head Chris Earle, former director of sport at Loughborough University in England.

But what they do have is machines like a robot-like football training device which allows players to hone their ball control skills in a controlled environment. "There are only three of these in the world," we are told.

By this point, statements like this are becoming rather familiar and, by the next afternoon, when we travel around the Qatar National Convention Centre, where the IAAF Congress would be held alongside the Championships in 2019, anything else would come as a shock.

Alongside numerous conference rooms, with every place having a plug socket and seemingly perfect wifi - an asset that should never, ever be underestimated - the Centre boasts Damien Hurst originals and its own philharmonic orchestra, not to mention distinctive décor of the giant spider variety.

The IAAF Evaluation Commission pose with Qatari officials during their visit to inspect Doha's 2019 World Championships bid ©ITG
The IAAF Evaluation Commission pose with Qatari officials during their visit to inspect Doha's 2019 World Championships bid ©ITG

On a general level, the impression I am left with is one of huge efficiency and ambition, fuelled by vast investment and support.

Yes, I still don't feel placed to comment about elements of how the country secured the FIFA World Cup, but I do feel that, whatever people say about temperature and its place in the football calendar, the Qataris will be able to host it and it will be a success. Given their technological prowess, by 2022 they could probably change the temperature of the whole nation if they had to...

I am sure an IAAF World Championships in Doha in 2019 or, dare I say it, a future Olympic Games, would be similarly successful. And given the effort they have put into it, they deserve every bit of success they get.

Nick Butler is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.