Doha: In the controversy surrounding Qatar’s 2022 football World Cup, it’s almost forgotten that in exactly one year Doha will host its biggest sporting event to date, the World Athletics Championships.
On September 27, 2019, the planet’s best athletes will congregate in Qatar’s capital for 10 days for the premier track and field competition of the season.
It will be the first time the event is held in the Middle East.
For the athletes it represents a golden chance of glory; for Qatar the championships are an opportunity to directly address its many critics to show it deserves to host global sporting events.
“All the big pieces are in place,” International Association of Athletics Federation vice-president — and Qatari — Dahlan Al Hamad assured reporters this week.
Qatar will hold a one-year-to-go event at the championships venue, the expensively refurbished and air-conditioned Khalifa International Stadium, on Thursday
However, the omens are not good.
Before a spike has touched the track, Qatar has been widely criticised for having the event shifted to late September and early October because of concerns over the desert state’s weather.
All previous nine world championships held this century begun in August.
Temperatures in Doha this week still reached highs of 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit).
Accordingly, organisers have announced the marathons will be held at midnight and traditional morning sessions scrapped.
The earliest events are scheduled to start is 4:15pm local time.
Human rights concerns have again surfaced.
Roundly criticised for its labour practices since winning the right to host the World Cup in 2010 — Amnesty International published its latest damning report this week — Qatar will not escape similar condemnation in the run up to the athletics.
Khalifa is also a venue for the football World Cup and it is where British worker Zac Cox fell 39 metres (128 feet) to his death while working on the stadium in January 2017.
A subsequent inquest said conditions at the stadium during construction work were “downright dangerous”.
– Boycott theat –
Politics is also set to feature, with the potential threat of a boycott.
Since June 2017, Qatar has been isolated by a group of former allied neighbouring countries, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, who cut all ties with Doha, accusing it of supporting Iran and extremist groups.
Fifteen months on, the crisis is as entrenched as ever.
Qatar refutes all allegations, but the World Athletics Championships will be a significant global sporting and political test for the crisis and those involved.
Last year, Qatar was due to hold the football Gulf Cup but this was switched to Kuwait — the mediator in the crisis — after it was clear the boycotting countries would not attend.
There have also been fears crowds will be sparse, given past sporting events in Doha.
The most recent event in the 40,000-seater Khalifa, a Qatar v China football friendly, attracted 1,000 spectators.
The 2016 UCI Road World Championships took place with embarrassingly few people watching — in part because of the heat — and there are concerns this could be repeated. Local organisers estimated in May that only 10,000 foreign visitors were expected to attend the athletics worlds.
However, track and field has usually been well attended in Doha, which hosts a Diamond League event every season in the albeit much smaller Qatar Sports Club. The crowds for those meets are swelled mainly thanks to the large number of fans from Ethiopia and Kenya who make up some of the two million migrant numbers in the gas-rich emirate.