Athletics championships turn into PR nightmare for Qatar

Glitches indicate major issues, including allegations of corruption and abuse of construction workers,  that may not be worked out by 2022.
Saturday 05/10/2019
An unidentified competitor is transported by wheelchair after abandoning the women's marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, September 28. (AP)
An unidentified competitor is transported by wheelchair after abandoning the women's marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, September 28. (AP)

LONDON - The IAAF World Athletics Championships had been intended to showcase Doha’s preparedness for the 2022 FIFA World Cup but ended being the source of many headaches instead. Glitches indicate major issues, including allegations of corruption and abuse of construction workers,  that may not be worked out by 2022.

Sicne the first days of the event,  lack of fans during the championships triggered criticism of the IAAF’s decision to award its showpiece event to a tiny country without a significant track and field fan base and with desert heat.

Evidence of sparse attendance was obvious when Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce took her victory lap September 30 after winning her fourth 100-metre title. With empty seats dominating the background, most of those on hand for the women’s 100 final seemed to be Jamaican supporters, team officials or Fraser-Pryce family members, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

When bidding for the 2017 championships, Doha promised the IAAF that every session would be sold out and there would be “no empty seats.” Tens of thousands of seats instead were covered with fabric featuring the competition branding. Even for the men’s 100-metre final — the centrepiece of the championships — fans were vastly outnumbered by empty seats.

“The IAAF needs to learn and get better, fill up stadiums and make athletics a more interesting sport,” said Akani Simbine, the South African who finished fourth in the 100-metre race. “That’s the thing they need to figure out.”

IAAF President Sebastian Coe can’t blame the 2014 IAAF decision awarding Qatar the 2019 championship on predecessor Lamine Diack because Coe was then an IAAF vice-president and served on the bid evaluation committee.

After the bid vote, Coe said Qatar “put some incentives on the table,” including building athletics facilities around the world. A year later, Coe told British parliamentarians he was unsure if the bid was clean.

Qatar’s conduct in bidding for the IAAF championships is the subject of a criminal investigation in France.

A preliminary charge of “active corruption” was filed in May against Nasser al-Khelaifi, the chairman of the beIN media group and runs French football team Paris Saint-Germain, alleging a $3.5 million payment to an IAAF official. Khelaifi denies any wrongdoing

Officials of the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), an IAAF unit that operates independently from the world body, were at the stadium to talk about potential misconduct in Doha’s bid.

“It is an area that is an area of concern not only to us but to others,” AIU head Brett Clothier said, discussing the cooperation with French prosecutors.

Broadcasting from a set in the stadium, former athletes on the BBC attacked organisers.

“Our governing body has let our athletes down massively,” said Denise Lewis, the heptathlon gold medallist at the 2000 Olympics.

Distance-running great Haile Gebrselassie said it was a mistake to have the track and field world championships in Qatar and that marathon runners could have died from the heat. Even running the marathon at midnight did not allow runners to miss the heat.

The women’s marathon started at midnight September 28 to avoid the worst of the heat in Qatar but was still run in humid conditions that made it feel like 40 Celsius. Twenty-eight of the 68 women dropped out, 30 runners were given medical inspections and one was briefly hospitalised.

“It was a mistake to conduct the championship in such hot weather in Doha, especially the marathon race. As someone who has been in the sport for many years, I’ve found it unacceptable,” former marathon world-record holder Gebrselassie told the AP in a telephone interview.

Other distance events in Doha saw athletes fail to finish. In the men’s 50km walk, 15 of 46 starters dropped out, and six out of 23 were non-finishers in the women’s 50km walk.

The championships revived allegations of Qatari authorities abuse of constrution workers. Before the championships, Amnesty International published “All Work, No Pay: The Struggle of Qatar’s Migrant Workers for Justice,” a report that detailed alleged abuse of foreigners working on the construction of sports sites and who, Amnesty International said, “were ruthlessly and systematically exploited.”

It said hundreds of the workers had been sent home without pay.

“We’re not against the world athletics championship being staged in Doha but Qatar’s shameful record over the exploitation of migrant workers in the country mustn’t be airbrushed out of the picture either,” said Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and Government Affairs.

Sports experts worry about the possible significance of the athletics championship’s mishaps and other organisational concerns on the organisation of the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

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