With hardly anyone in the stadium television has been forced to show empty stadiums with the result that even athletes have questioned why the event was staged in Doha in the first place …. writes Mihir Bose
The Doha World Athletics championships will not be remembered for the medals won and records smashed but that it was staged in front of virtually empty stadiums. Although in the last four decades more people watch a sporting event on television or now on their phone rather than actually go through the turnstile of a stadium for most international events enough people gather in the stadium to suggest that the old link of sports and spectators remains.
There is, of course, a contradiction here. Television moguls constantly urge people to watch their programs when they screen a match. But they always make sure the camera pans over crowds in the stadium to give those watching while seated on their sofas at home the feel that they are actually at a proper sporting event. Indeed, the producers make sure the cameras do not dwell on stands where not many people may be seated. But in Doha with hardly anyone in the stadium television has been forced to show empty stadiums with the result that even athletes have questioned why the event was staged in Doha in the first place.
The immediate response to this is to say that this is because the IAAF which organises the event has sold out to mammon. Qatar offered more money than any other bidder and to Qatar they went ignoring whether Doha was at all suitable. They did do despite the fact that the heat in Doha has meant events have had to be scheduled at all sorts of extraordinary times with the marathon starting at midnight.
Certainly, the way the IAAF spoke about the marathon being held at the midnight hour indicated very clearly that for the bosses of sport markets and commercial considerations are very important. So, while Seb Coke President of the IAAF asked about the midnight marathon did utter the usual clichés about looking after the welfare of the athletes he also said, “It will actually meet some of the needs of some of the big marathon markets around the world.”
In that sense Qatar makes ideal sense as a happy marriage between athletics need for money and Qatar’s desire to use sport as a political weapon to promote the country. It may be a small country and one which has problems with its neighbours but when it comes to major international sporting events none of its Arab rivals can match it. Having unexpectedly won the right to stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup it has launched a campaign to get as many high-profile sporting events as it can. In addition, every year it organises sports seminars where the great and good come and pontificate on the issues of sport. It is determined to prove Qatar is a major sports centre. For Qatar the Doha World Athletics Championships is its calling card much as the 2008 Beijing Olympics was for China. But whereas Beijing packed the stands with Qatar unable to find anyone to watch the athletics the question that has been raised is will the 2022 World Cup also be played in front of empty stadiums? My feeling is for the World Cup crowds will turn up.
The reason for that is the nature of those who live in Qatar and their sporting inclinations. Qatar has a huge migrant community from the subcontinent. They are passionate about cricket and also football. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal may not have football teams that will worry even second or third division football teams in the English league but there is no denying how intensely football is followed. All the major clubs of the top European Leagues have large following in that part of the world. The Premier League has been so successful in marketing itself that all Premier league matches are televised and even passengers at metro stations in India can while away their time waiting for trains watching these matches on giant screens suspended over the platforms. In Mumbai airport Manchester United has a shop and every time it plays Liverpool the match is vigorously promoted as the reds on the march.
But there is no such appetite for athletics. This is not a sport that any of the subcontinental countries do well in. Look at the results from Doha and you will struggle to find a subcontinental winner. India for all its love for cricket and its success in that sport has a dreadful record in athletics. The world’s second most populous country, largest democracy and now the fifth ranked economic nation, higher than the UK, has never won a track and field medal at the Olympics of any kind and this after nearly a century of competing in the Olympics.
So, to expect people from the subcontinent to flock to the Doha stadium to watch athletes from foreign nations perform was to expect them to fall in love with a sport they had no bond with. Yet when the World Cup comes I am sure many of them will turn up because football has some meaning for them. The World Cup may have other problems, but it will not lead to the cry of where have all the people from Qatar gone?
(@mihirbose – Mihir Bose is former Spots Editor of BBC)