What is it about Qatar?

Gráinne Daly asks why exactly are we looking at Qatar as a sporting venue, in the midst of the calamitous World Athletics Championships

The price of a pint in Qatar would make the most loyal of drinkers consider the pledge. The unavailability of alcohol throughout the Gulf state would give them a thirst. The announcement by Qatari organisers that they will reduce the price of alcohol for the 2022 World Cup may give hope, but the realisation that drunkenness can result in imprisonment will have them their next savouring Super Sunday pints belovedly.

Welcome to the home of the next FIFA World Cup.

Amid the whiff of brown envelopes and an endorsement from the almighty Sepp Blatter who proclaimed an Arab world cup to be a good idea, Qatar was awarded the hosting of the 2022 tournament. The bid was just one of a concerted campaign to attract high-profile world sport events to the desert. Deep pockets and high hopes make good bedfellows. On the back of a successful hosting of their biggest ever event, the 2006 Asian Games, they managed to attract the F1 Grand Prix, 2012 Squash Championships, 2014 World Swimming Championships and the 2019 World Athletics Championships.

The World Athletics Championships held in October will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. A dizzying mix of humidity and scorching temperatures derailed the endless hours of training and dedication that athletes put into their preparation. The traditional format of morning training sessions and afternoon competitions were sidelined to make way for later afternoon training and nighttime competitions: this to avert the inevitability of athletes melting on the track or field. The marathon event was held after midnight, a decision that was criticized by many including marathon runner Volha Mazuronak who said that organisers were disrespectful to athletes by making them compete in the conditions. Others believed that the road events should have been located in the air-conditioned stadium instead.

The incendiary conditions, among other factors, translated in a 90% decline in ticket sales from the previous 2017 championships. Finals were held around 11pm local time to cater for an international TV audience. Locals, understandably, left venues early. The organisers gave free tickets and still only partially filled venues. A bad sign indeed and a pitiful state of affairs when athletes are expected to perform at all hours in the desert heat. Just how hot is it? A paint-melting 50c plus in summer months or around 30c for the rest of the year. This may be fine for sunshine fans but picture the challenge for athletes striving to be at their peak such a furnace.

UK company, ARUP, is selling air to the Arabs after being awarded the contract to roll out state-of-the art air conditioning systems to venues ahead of the World Cup 2022. This as part of the Qatari promise to deliver something undeliverable. In response to concerns about hosting sports events in scalding conditions, the 2022 Qatar bid chairman, said that “we will have to take the help of technology to counter the harsh weather. A stadium with controlled temperature is the answer to the problem. We have other plans up our sleeves as well”. Plans up their sleeves? A part of the technology to combat the climate conditions is the willingness of international football associations to agree to allow the 2022 tournament be held in winter instead. It will be held from November 21st to December 18th.

Qatar is a country that outlaws homosexuality, prohibits sufferers of HIV or AIDS from living there, bans pornograpy, and as mentioned above, has restrictive laws around alcohol. Insulting somebody in public is also considered a punishable offense. Fans will need to be on their best behaviour with a strict dress code law ruling out the possibility of the topless lad look.  Does this sound like the inclusive venue that an international sports competition deserves?

The Qataris also implement strict laws that include no public acts of affection. But fandom is all about public acts of unity, pride and celebration. If you’ve never shared a tight embrace with the person beside you in the stand to mark the ripple of the opposition net, then you haven’t lived. Spontaneous back claps and hugs, communal chants, peculiar dance rituals – it’s what fans do. Hugs, flags and headbands: all part of the game. When asked about how Qataris are likely to react to a gay couple holding hands, Al-Khater, the chief executive officer of the 2022 World Cup, said they wouldn’t be treated any differently from any other couple or individual, a public display of affection is frowned upon. 

Questions remain as to whether the beautiful game can be played or celebrated to its potential in the desert but one thing is for sure, with a World Cup final on 18th December, Christmas will come early for some.