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In the 111 years since the Olympic Games were revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, neither they nor football’s World Cup have been staged in the Middle East. Now Doha, capital of the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf state of Qatar, is bidding to break new ground by hosting the summer Games of 2016.
It has picked a tough fight. The International Olympic Committee ann-ounced last month that seven cities – Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Prague, Madrid, Chicago, Baku and Doha – had applied to stage the 2016 Games.
Interviewed in London recently, Hassan Ali Bin Ali, the Beirut- and British-educated businessman, who is chairman of the city’s bid committee, made clear that the aim really was to win rather than to just raise his small country’s profile. “We are serious about this bid,” he said.
The Qataris have already retained a raft of specialist international consultants, showing evidence of the seriousness of their intentions. Success will depend on convincing the IOC and the world at large that Qatar is a prosperous, stable yet comparatively progressive state with ultra-modern sporting facilities and infrastructure, rather than just an outpost of one of the world’s most turbulent regions.
“We are developing our political structure,” said Ali Bin Ali. “We are developing our health and education. We are taking care of the under-privileged. We are building state-of-the-art facilities for the disabled. We want really to bring the world to the Arab world to see the changes that are taking place there.”
The city’s battery of sports facilities are the legacy, partly, of its role in hosting last year’s Asian Games.
“Already most of the venues to hold an Olympic Games are in place,” Ali Bin Ali said. “We had a successful Asian Games. Everyone witnessed that . . . All our venues are being upgraded [to Olympic standards] as we speak.”
The Middle East’s political problems are so widely known there would be little point trying to brush them under the carpet. Ali Bin Ali’s approach seems, accordingly, to play up the extent to which staging the Olympic Games in an Arab state might help to solve previously intractable problems.
“We are part of the Middle East and we would like to encourage all parties in the region to live and co-exist together in peace and harmony,” he said. “Bringing the Olympics [to the region] will, I think, help greatly.”
Though others might be sceptical about sport’s capacity to promote greater mutual understanding, Ali Bin Ali enthused about the possible impact of Israeli athletes “for the first time” coming to an Arab state and experiencing the warmth of Arab hospitality. “We don’t hide the fact that we do try to talk and to bridge the gap of peace with the state of Israel,” he said.
The position of women in society is another potentially contentious issue. However, Ali Bin Ali asserted that Qatar had “no problem at all” with women competing at sports exactly as they do in the west. “We have been encouraging women to be in sports for a while now,” he said. “We have women working in all aspects of life, whether it is education, health or even business.”
In common with other Gulf states, Qatar is not known for its international sporting prowess. What would the country be doing to raise standards of local athletes to help ensure a respectable standing in the 2016 medals table? Ali Bin Ali pointed to a Qatari academy called Aspire, which aims to nurture sporting talent while also providing a good education.
“Hopefully, by 2016 you’ll see young Qatari athletes competing in the Games,” he said. And would transfers of allegiance by athletes to Qatar from other countries, such as the former Kenyan runner Stephen Cherono, now known as Saif Saaeed Shaheen, continue? Ali Bin Ali left no doubt that he saw nothing wrong with such arrangements, if handled in the right way.
“Some sort of compensation should be given to these states,” he said. “Like building sports facilities. So it’s a two-way stream; you have to co-operate, ask their permission.”
Doha’s commitment to the Paralympics – a stance that helped London in the 2012 contest – is likely to help. Ali Bin Ali was instrumental in setting up the Shafallah Centre for children with special needs, a facility he described as “the best in the world”. Young Qataris who have passed through the centre are starting to enjoy success at international events.
“Believe it or not, we
won three Special Olympics gold medals for ice skating,” he said.