Almost immediately after Doha won the rights to host the 2019 World Athletics Championships, controversy followed. But before we can analyze the effects of the boycott of Qatar by its neighbors on the Championships, let’s take a step back and review the troubled and troubling history of Doha’s successful bid.
A History of Controversy
Reports emerged the day after Qatar had won the hosting rights in November 2014 that the Qatari Athletics Federation had offered over $30 million in additional “incentives” minutes before the final vote. The IAAF insisted that this was totally legal, and apparently a common practice.
Controversy continued to hound the bid. The following year IAAF President Seb Coe was “grilled” for three hours by Members of the UK Parliament and was unable to categorically say that Doha’s bid was clean. Instead Coe admitted that even he didn’t even know if the bid was clean or not.
It quickly became clear that the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha would be unlike any other, but for all the wrong reasons. The organizing committee announced that they would push the Championships, which is traditionally held in August, to the winter. All but guaranteeing that it would inevitably clash and compete with a sporting goliath; the European football season.
Adding to the mire, the local organizing committee dropped morning sessions entirely – the earliest start of any of the sessions is 16:15 (the full schedule can be found here) – thereby avoiding the intense heat of the day that can reach up to 40 degrees centigrade in September. To further mitigate the heat, the organizers flaunted the new stadium cooling technology that was developed primarily thanks to the ever-controversial 2022 FIFA World Cup. Yet another unorthodox change was that the marathon would start at midnight, as well as a new event entirely, the mixed 4x400m relay.
All of this controversy took place to the usual drum beat of the ongoing human rights abuses of laborers , perpetually condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and international media to virtually no effect. These abuses are systemic to the construction industry in Qatar, and both the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 World Athletics Championships will use some of the same venues, namely the newly-refurbished Khalifa International Stadium (which has claimed the life of the first western worker, much to the horror of British media).
The Boycott of Qatar
By far the biggest wrench to be thrown at the troubled Championships was the diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar by its neighbors. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia (with whom it shares its only land border), the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – as well as several smaller nations of little relevance to the political rift – cut all ties and closed all sea and land borders, as well as air space to Qatar, isolating it totally. The boycotting nations accused Qatar of supporting terrorism (which it strongly denies) and presented a list of un-actionable demands that will never be met by Doha, resulting in a stalemate that continues today with no end in sight.
So what does this mean for the 2019 World Athletics Championships? The one that was touted again and again as a way to connect the world of athletics?
There are two factors to consider that could potentially impact the hosting of the World Championships, travel time and a possible boycott.
The most obvious and immediate effect of the boycott was an increase in travel time and expenses. Unable to fly via their usual routes through Bahraini, Saudi and Emirati airspace, Qatar had little recourse than to re-route all of its air traffic through Iran.
In July 2018, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al-Baker admitted that the boycott increased travel times (although no figures have been given as to the extent of the delays) and warned that travelers could be seeing an increase in airfares soon. Qatar’s national airlines recently announced a $69 million loss, which they rightly attributed to the boycott.
The implications of this on a practical level for the athletes from around the world that are expected to visit Doha in September 2019 are limited. International athletes headed to the 2019 World Athletics Championships could potentially face slight price increases in airfare, and increased travel times – hardly deal-breakers given the scale and level of the Championships.
No professional athlete will miss their chance at glory in the flagship athletics event, second only to the Olympics, over a comparatively minor increase in travel time and cost. So in this respect, the boycott is unlikely to hinder the hosting of the World Championships.
The other possible impact of the boycott, and one that will almost certainly happen, is that the boycotting quartet of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt will refuse to send their athletes to the Championships, thus depriving their athletes of a potentially once-in-a-lifetime chance.
This has already happened, although in a tournament of lesser significance. The 2017 Gulf Nations Cup was held in Kuwait instead of Doha once the quartet announced that they would boycott the football tournament if it was held in Qatar. The political will to interfere in sports is clearly strong, so a boycott of the 2019 World Athletics Championships is all but a certainty – despite Coe’s repeated assertions that this will not be the case, and his strong urging for everyone to put aside “political fragilities”.
Yet, even if Saudi, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt do boycott the World Athletics Championships – what impact would that actually have? Not much.
Judging by the size of their delegations in the previous edition held in London in 2017, a boycott from the quartet would hardly even be noticeable. In the 2017 World Championships, Saudi Arabia and the UAE only sent one athlete, Egypt sent four. None of those five athletes won any medals. Bahrain on the other hand sent 26 athletes, two of whom won medals (the medal winners were previously Nigerian and Kenyan nationals) yet even if Bahrain boycotts the Doha World Championships, it would hardly cause any meaningful disruption.
It seems that the 2019 World Athletics Championships, despite the many obstacles and controversies that it faces, will likely take place without any significant problems as a result of the boycott.
The Championships will still have to face the same, seemingly insurmountable obstacle that has hindered all of the sporting events hosted in Doha.
The Real Challenge: Where are the fans?
Organizers in Doha are unable to fill stadiums with fans, regardless of the sport.
Football, swimming, handball, athletics, or para-athletics, the results are the same – at best the seats are only three-quarters empty and at worst, there’s no one there but other athletes and their coaches.
In the 2015 IPC Para-Athletics World Championships, the premier para-athletics event in the world that took place over 10-days, only 5000 tickets were sold in total, according to one of the organizers [PDF]. The poor attendance remained despite an intensified campaign of community engagement that included reaching out to embassies to send their nationals to the games, and bussing in hapless school children that had to be shushed by the announcer as some sight-impaired para-athletes needed quiet in order to hear their way through their competition.
This has led Qatar into bizarre and desperate territory. Paying poor laborers to watch the games in the otherwise empty stadiums is a common occurrence. In the 2015 World Handball Championships in Doha, organizers flew in fans from Spain on an all-expenses paid trip to cheer during the games, even against the Spanish team.
Despite virtually giving the tickets away for free in most cases, Qatar’s residents seem unwilling, uninterested or unable to attend any of these high-profile sporting events. Qatari organizers have tried everything to attract fans. Giveaways, low-priced or free tickets, entertainment, play areas, yet none have proven successful.
The government’s push towards using sport as soft power falls flat when the realities on the ground are examined. A 2014 poll by the Ministry of Development, Planning and Statistics indicated that two-thirds of Qataris surveyed didn’t attend any football matches in the previous season. Paradoxically, two-thirds of respondents said fake fans were one of the reasons why they weren’t interested in attending.
The problem of attendance persists and remains the biggest challenge not just for the 2019 World Athletics Championships, but also for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. This puzzling problem presents another, equally puzzling question. What is the point of paying millions to bid for and host these massive events – if the people who live next to the stadium don’t even bother to attend?
So while the boycott of Qatar may not effect the Championships much at all, the lack of a genuine, engaged audience will certainly cast a dark cloud over the competition. Unless of course, organizers finally find the magic solution to a problem that in many ways shouldn’t even exist.
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