Qatar may dream of being a sports powerhouse, but the country’s athletic abilities don’t quite match that soaring ambition. In fact, the 2.3-million strong country is the only host of an International Boxing Association Championship never to win a medal at the event. And despite sending two boxers to the 2016 Rio Olympics, both lost in the round of 32 by a score of 0-3 — and neither fighter was born in Qatar.
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The country’s exceedingly shallow pool of sports talent extends beyond the ring. And yet the Persian Gulf state is finding another way to dominate the fields of play.
From 2004 to 2024, Qatar will have hosted or is planning to host nearly 30 international sporting events — despite sucking at almost every single one of them.
Qatar has been a regular stop on the athletic circuit since the Doha Grand Prix in 1997. Since then, it has welcomed the Asian Games, Commercial Bank Qatar Masters (golf), Qatar ExxonMobil Tennis Open and the Qatar Total Open, Tour of Qatar (cycling), Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar (motor sports), F1H2O UIM World Championship (powerboat racing) and the IAAF Diamond League (track and field), as well as equestrian events and horse racing.
Small spuds compared to what’s next: Qatar is preparing to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022 — the first time the most important sporting event besides the Olympic Games will be held in the Middle East.
They’re making sports part of their national identity and part of their soft power policies.
James M. Dorsey, Middle East expert, Nanyang Technological University
Alas, Qatar’s soccer squad, formed in 1970, has never qualified for the quadrennial tournament. The team came close in 1998, but lost its bid at home to neighboring Saudi Arabia. It’s currently ranked just outside FIFA’s top 100. To be fair, Qatar won’t be the first non-qualifying country to host the World Cup. Japan had not yet qualified when it was named in 1996 as a co-host for the 2002 tournament; neither had South Korea, its event partner.
In fact, Qatar is best known for importing sports talent. Although it sent 39 athletes to Rio, 23 of them were born elsewhere and recruited to play for Qatar. Two of its top soccer players are naturalized Qataris — Karim Boudiaf, a Moroccan-Algerian, and Algerian-born Boualem Khoukhi. In fact, six of Qatar’s starting soccer players were not born in Qatar, according to BBC Sport.
And when Qatar hosted the 2015 Men’s World Handball Championships, it came under fire for having too many foreign players on its national team. The country has also welcomed runners from Sudan, boxers from Germany, a beach volleyball player from Brazil and a table tennis player from China, according to The Washington Post.
This practice is not going unnoticed. Qatar is “creating a fake team,” Christer Ahl, a high-level referee, told the London-based Sunday Telegraph. “They are putting together players with no apparent connection to the country and are kicked out if they don’t contribute to a medal or other success. They become some sort of all-star team.”
But finding young citizen-players to develop can be difficult. Families don’t always support their children’s pursuit of careers in sports and would prefer they enroll in college and get steady jobs. Universities in Qatar should lend greater support to aspiring local athletes by issuing those enrolled in school some credits for “national duty,” Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, head of Qatar’s Olympic Committee, told a local sports publication.
A country doesn’t need to excel in a sport to host an event, says James M. Dorsey, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and author of a blog called the Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. Qatar’s approach to sports is much more structural, he says: “They’re making sports part of their national identity and part of their soft power policies.” Just as Qatar is developing its airlines, arts, museums and real estate acquisitions, it is developing its reputation as a global sports host.
The Qatar government also sees sports as a way to promote tourism along with healthier lifestyles for its citizens, who suffer from some of the highest diabetes and obesity rates in the region. In addition, the athletic competitions convey a message of peace, security and goodwill to the rest of the world, Hazza’a Mubarak al-Hajri, assistant secretary-general for security affairs at the Gulf Cooperation Council, noted at a safety and security conference in Doha last year.
And, while few large sporting events leave a lasting positive legacy for the host nation, Dorsey says awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar has effected change. While the country remains autocratic, Dorsey says the international attention has forced leaders to address issues raised by trade unions and human rights groups.