Normally, at this point in the year, the summer track and field season would be a wrap. The Diamond League has held its final two meets in Zurich and Brussels, while over on this side of the Atlantic, the 5th Avenue Mile took place in New York City last Sunday. Traditionally, these competitions serve as a coda for the summer racing season—one last chance for the world’s fastest men and women to throw down before going into hibernation.
Things are a little different in 2019. The biennial IAAF World Championships, which are usually held in mid-August, will this year take place in late September to early October. This is because they are happening in the runner’s paradise that is Doha, Qatar. While the small, oil and gas-rich emirate has been a fixture on the Diamond League circuit for years, the IAAF decision to stage a global championships in the country has been controversial, to put it mildly.
The Heat Is Brutal
One could be forgiven for thinking that the Persian/Arabian Gulf isn’t the best place to stage an outdoor sporting event during the warmer months of the year. (The Doha Diamond League meet is always in early May.) In September, the average daily high in Doha still hits triple digits. That’s why the World Championships are taking place from September 27 to October 6. Even so, it is still likely to be quite warm, as evidenced by the fact that the marathon will start at midnight. Meanwhile, Khalifa Stadium, where most of the action will be taking place, has been outfitted with an air-conditioning system that, in the words of IAAF communications head Nicole Jeffrey, you have to see to believe.
The Timing Is Not Ideal
“It always looked like a really strange choice for the IAAF to make,” Ed Warner, the former head of UK Athletics and chairman of the last World Championships in London, told the BBC in 2017 about the decision to bring the championships to Doha. At the time, Warner expressed concerns that postponing Worlds until the fall would mean that the event would have to compete with hugely popular broadcasts of Champions League and English Premier League soccer. By the same token, from an American perspective, one of the benefits of past IAAF championships is that they took place during a mid-to-late summer sports vacuum, before football season and baseball playoffs could hijack a potential viewership. In fairness, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a significant Venn diagram intersection between hardcore NFL fans and those who enjoy watching a live broadcast of a 10,000-meter track race. (I’d love to be wrong about that.)
Migrant Workers Have Been Exploited
The decision to stage the championships in Qatar leaves the IAAF vulnerable to criticism that the organization is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. In 2010, Qatar was picked to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which means that the country has been getting a double dose of media scrutiny for years. As a consequence, there have been reports from Amnesty International of widespread exploitation of migrant workers, who, according to the NGO, make up 95 percent of the Qatari labor force. Khalifa Stadium, which will be also major venue for the 2022 World Cup, has been a particular focal point. Construction workers on the site have complained to Amnesty International about having their pay withheld for months, only to eventually receive far less compensation than they were originally promised. These workers have minimal rights and few legal options when their employers decide to stiff them. (As for the working conditions, imagine doing hard manual labor during a Qatari summer.)
There Have Been Allegations of Corruption
The 2019 World Championships are also a stark reminder of a legacy that the IAAF is desperately trying to leave behind. The decision to award the championships to Doha was made back in 2014, when the IAAF was led by Lamine Diack, the Senegalese businessman who has since been accused of, among other things, accepting bribes to cover up athlete doping violations. As with Qatar’s successful bid to host the World Cup, where a number of prominent FIFA officials have since been arrested on corruption charges, there is reason to be suspicious that bribery may have also played a role in bringing the World Championships to the emirate. In May, the New York Times reported that French prosecutors had filed charges against Yousef al-Obaidly, the CEO of the Qatar-based beIN Media Group. Al-Obaidly is accused of overseeing a 2011 transfer of $3.5 million to a company owned by Papa Massata Diack, the former IAAF president’s son and all-around upstanding guy. Unsurprisingly, al-Obaidly has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Of course, one could argue that it’s not worth dwelling on the potential downsides of a decision that was made years ago and can’t be undone. Like it or not, in just over two weeks, the World Champs will be kicking off in Doha. (And there’s something to be said for professional athletics taking its signature product to a new region of the world—especially a region with a notably young population.)
But given the public relations power of mega-events like the Olympic Games and the World Cup (and, yes, even the humble IAAF World Championships) we should be skeptical, even as we allow ourselves to be seduced by the drama of what’s happening on the track.
So I’ll still be watching the World Champs in Doha next month. It’s better than football in any case.