Qatar defies virus, presses on with major sport events

Gregory Walton
·4-min read

Qatar has defied soaring coronavirus numbers to stage high-profile sporting events, serving as a test bed ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 World Cup, but also suffering high-profile setbacks.

Doha, among the most controversial World Cup hosts of the modern era, has bucked the trend of more established sporting nations which have cancelled or postponed a slew of elite events.

Instead it has deployed multi-billion dollar venues, luxury hotels-turned-quarantine centres and formidable virus testing system to host football, golf, tennis, motorcycling, judo and beach volleyball events -- some with spectators.

Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian Sport at EM Lyon University, said full-fledged tournaments complete with fans were key to Qatar's strategy to diversify its economy away from gas and oil dependence.

"It is reckless to be staging events during times of rising infection, but... the inconvenient truth for Qatar is that the country has rolled the dice big on sporting events," he said.

Since winning the role of World Cup 2022 host back in 2010, Qatar has been dogged by accusations of worker mistreatment, corruptly obtaining the tournament, and being an unsuitable venue because of the desert nation's inhospitable climate.

Now it looks certain that coronavirus and efforts to suppress the pandemic instead will dominate the lead-up.

- 'Covid-free World Cup' -

Doha and FIFA have insisted that 2022 will proceed with fans from across the globe, and a minister last week said Qatar was in talks with vaccine makers to ensure all attendees could be vaccinated, to make the World Cup "Covid-free".

However, breaches of Qatar's elaborate and costly efforts to stage sports have highlighted the risks and vulnerabilities in enforcement, issues the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics will have to confront this summer.

Bayern star Thomas Mueller tested positive ahead of February's Club World Cup final in Doha, while American tennis player Denis Kudla learnt he was positive mid-game while qualifying for the Australian Open.

Another case was detected in the beach volleyball "bubble", while there were prominent biosecurity breaches including VVIPs sitting in player boxes at the Qatar Open and players greeting non-bubble guests at the Club Cup.

A Qatari official said authorities worked with each events' organisers to "pick the best (biosecurity) option while keeping track of local transmission rates".

"The Club World Cup model was very successful," he added, suggesting fans attending did not increase infections.

James Dorsey, author of the Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, said trying different approaches to containment was "not a bad strategy -- because at least you know what works".

The MotoGP, which resumed in Qatar this month after a virus hiatus, offered vaccines to everyone in the paddock.

Dorsey said an inoculation requirement for 2022 attendees "would make sense".

"Verifying vaccines would certainly be possible, Qatar vaccinating (fans) would not necessarily be feasible. But it also depends on how travel develops," he said.

As for soccer powerhouses like Brazil that traditionally send thousands of fans to World Cups but which has turned into a Covid epicentre and struggled to vaccinate, Dorsey warned "they may get penalised".

- Olympics 'very risky' -

"We can all learn from each other's experiences," said Andrew Murray, Chief Medical Officer for the PGA European Tour which visited Qatar in March.

"For the 2022 World Cup, strong progress is being made regarding vaccination both in Qatar and internationally. This may increase opportunities for international visitors, all being well."

Qatar has suffered a surge of cases and deaths in recent months, with almost 25 percent of its more than 380 fatalities recorded so far in April alone.

In the past 30 days, more than 25,000 people tested positive compared to just 7,501 in January, among a population of 2.75 million, although there is no evidence linking sporting events to the surge.

Doha blames new virus variants and social gatherings, emphasising that more than 1.2 million vaccine doses have been administered.

Organisers of the 2022 tournament have so far been spared the intense coronavirus scrutiny of the Tokyo Olympics -- due to begin a year late in July despite a senior Japanese politician warning they could still be cancelled.

"The Olympics are going to be very risky, given the pandemic is ongoing and cases in many countries are rising steeply," said Michael Head, a global health researcher at the University of Southampton.

"In my view, the Olympics and other mass gatherings that require international travel would be best postponed for another year."