With a long and proud sporting heritage, Qatar is today further positioning itself as one of the world’s premiere sports destinations. Building on the interest generated when it hosted the Asian Games in 2006, the country has gone onto establish itself as a bona fide ‘Land of Sport’, highlighted by the fact that it is playing host to dozens of top-class events every year.
Like any country in the world, Qatar has a proud sporting tradition stretching back centuries and based on the deep-rooted traditional pursuits of the region, such as racing and falconry. However, in recent years the Gulf nation has set itself apart from the crowd by positioning itself at the forefront of global sports event hosting, culminating in a successful bid to stage the World Cup in 2022.
Even before the historic moment in 2010 when FIFA president Sepp Blatter plucked the name Qatar out of an envelope in Zurich, making the country the first in the Arab world to be awarded the tournament, Qatar had already been active in building a sporting legacy for generations to come. The first major international tournament to be hosted by the nation of just over two million inhabitants was the 1988 AFC Asian Cup, a competition Qatar would go on to stage a second time in 2011.
But it was really the 2006 Asian Games that put Qatar firmly on the global sporting map. Another first for the region, the Doha Games featured 46 disciplines across 38 sports and was notable as being the first occasion that all 45 members of the Olympic Council of Asia were represented, while also becoming the first Asian Games to be televised in Europe. Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup was based on the idea of regional and global integration and the 2006 Asian Games served as an excellent dress rehearsal. As Mr Blatter noted when Qatar was awarded the World Cup, the country’s stellar showing in 2006 left no room for doubt that it could successfully put on the biggest sporting event in the world.
Meanwhile, resolving to build on the success of the 2006 Asian Games at a grassroots level, Qatar soon after implemented a four-year plan drawn up by the Qatar Olympic Committee (QOC). Given an initial span of 2008-2012, the strategy aimed to bring the sports sector under the umbrella of the government’s overarching Vision 2030 by focusing on six areas of development: providing sports and leisure facilities, promotion and publicity, sports education, developing athletes to compete internationally, sports management, and hosting international events.
The success of the initiative in turn led to the on-going Sports Sector Strategy (SSS) 2011-2016. The primary goal of the SSS is to translate massive investment in infrastructure into participation in sports at all levels.
For instance, football pitches and running tracks have been constructed at an Olympic rate across the country, in addition to leisure centres, swimming pools, gymnasiums, and several youth centres.
On the event front, aside from winning with its bid to host the World Cup in 2022, Qatar has also been able to build on the interest generated by the 2006 Asian Games, successfully applying to hold the inaugural Diamond League athletics meeting and also welcoming the Indoor World Championships to the country in 2010. Qatar has subsequently been chosen to stage the 2019 IAAF World Championships and also last year held the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Doha.
Other annual events on the Qatari sporting calendar include an ATP World Tour tennis tournament, the Qatar MotoGP Grand Prix, the Qatar Masters, a PGA European Tour tournament, and the season-finale WTA Tour Tennis Championships. Between March 2015 and March 2016 alone, Qatar hosted 89 different sports events.
As Qatar’s schedule has grown, so has its commitment to providing state of the art facilities and infrastructure. The Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex and the Aspire Zone Foundation are two of the most striking examples of Qatar’s huge investment over the past decade, which has seen over £1.8 billion pumped into the country’s sports sector.
The Aspire Zone, founded in 2003 in the Al-Waab district of Doha, is a 250-hectare development featuring the 50,000-seater Khalifa International Stadium, the Aspire Dome, a multi-purpose indoor sports facility with 13 arenas, and the Hamad Aquatic Centre, which hosted the 2014 FINA Short Course World Championships. In 2014, the Aspire Zone announced plans to double its capacity.
“The Aspire Zone Foundation [AZF] has contributed heavily to attracting more visitors to the country and creating a real interest in visiting Doha as the new world sports capital,” says Khalid Abdullah Al Sulaiteen, former CEO of the Aspire Zone Foundation. “One of the live indicators for the role of AZF is the number of visitors recorded in 2014, which exceeded 650,000. Meanwhile, Aspire Zone has become the preferred destination for the most famous and popular teams for their winter training camps. These elite clubs have millions of fans and followers around the world. Manchester United with close to 65 million followers on social media, and Bayern Munich with more than 26 million are examples for how much traffic their presence in Aspire is creating around the world, especially in that they kept re-choosing AZF year after year.”
In addition to hosting top-level global sporting events, the Aspire Zone Foundation also works to train future sports stars through the Aspire Academy, whose global ambassadors include Lionel Messi, Pelé, and double Olympic gold medal-winning middle distance runner Hicham El Guerrouj.
“The Aspire Academy is a unique centre that combines the development of sporting talent using the latest technologies, focusing on sports science on one side and while also guaranteeing a high-standard education for athletes to enable them to face different life challenges,” says Mr Al Sulaiteen.
Among the academy’s graduates is Qatari high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim, a bronze medallist at the 2012 Olympics and world indoor champion in 2014, and squash player Abdullah Al-Tamimi. Qatar’s under-19s won the Asian Football Confederation Championships for the first time in 2014 – with a team made up entirely of players from the Aspire Academy.
In something of a coup, former Spain and Barcelona World Cup-winning midfielder Xavi Hernández joined Qatar Stars League side Al-Saad in July 2015 and announced he would also be working with the Aspire Academy, which he described as a “magnificent” facility.
The Aspire Zone’s affiliated sports medical centre, Aspetar, is also one of the most renowned in the world. Accredited by both FIFA and the GCC Health Council, the national teams of Algeria, Ivory Coast, and Bosnia and Herzegovina selected Aspetar as their medical sponsors during the 2014 World Cup.
More than $160 billion has been set aside for World Cup 2022 investment and the Aspire Zone Foundation has been an active participant in testing out the much-vaunted cooling technology to be deployed for both players and fans during the tournament, assuming it eventually gets the green light to go ahead in the summer months. Qatar put on cooled fan zones during the Brazil World Cup and the one staged at the Aspire Zone (at a test event in 2014) was used to try out the cooling systems that will be rolled out at training complexes and stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.
But while football is the nation’s favourite adopted sport, traditional pastimes remain strong in Qatar and none more so than horse racing. The Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club (QREC), led by general manager Nasser Sherida Al Kaabi, is the organisation charged with taking Qatari racing, and its famous Arabian horses, onto the international stage. QREC is already heavily involved in the British racing scene, sponsoring events at Lockinge and Goodwood and also enjoying success at racing’s greatest event, Royal Ascot.
“Horse racing for us is one of our heritages and we love to be associated with horses, and I think horse racing is actually a sport that everybody in the world should enjoy and get acquainted with. This has been a historical event for many centuries, more than 200 years, and being associated with this sport is something that cannot be compared to anything else in the world,” says Mr Al Kaabi, whose organisation has worldwide sponsorship deals with Longines, Exxon Mobil, and Total, the former of which partners Qatar at the annual Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, Europe’s most prestigious flat race. The last two Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes have been won by Thierry Jarnet, riding for Al Shaqab Racing, Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani’s stables. The Sheikh was the leading owner winner at last year’s Royal Ascot, which Mr Al Kaabi notes is a further statement of Qatar’s intent to establish itself at the “top level in all sports.”
“Winning Royal Ascot is an experience that cannot be matched to anything else. For us, as we see it, we are the newcomers in Britain and France, especially in horse racing. I think it sends a big message, that we want to be there and we want to prove to the world that we can be the best,” he states. “As Arabs, we had horses before petrol, before anything, and I think they played a major role in our lifestyle and I think all the Qataris have some kind of strong emotion towards horses. Our strategy and image now is to make Qatar a major destination for horseracing events in the world. We have good horses, we have the best field in the world, and we have the best jockey in Frankie Dettori [Sheikh Al-Thani’s retained rider].”
Qatar also enjoys a love affair with a more recent racing form, MotoGP. In 2004, the Losail International Circuit was launched and has hosted the world championship curtain-raiser Qatar Grand Prix annually since then. However, Qatar has never been shy about standing out from the crowd at international sporting events and raised a few eyebrows when the decision was taken to stage the race at night, a move that was not without its technical considerations as Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiya, president of the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation explains.
“Sometimes, you need to take risks and face challenges to really take a project on. Technology can set new standards. It was a big risk, we could have lost our investment if we weren’t able make it work, and there were so many challenges. The course has corners and it’s very critical to set up lights around the corners to avoid shadows. We need to avoid shadows because the rider is different than a car driver. The car is always moving in a certain way on the circuit, but the bike has angles. So if the rider sees his shadow, he might think it’s an opponent. TV coverage is also a problem, if there’s a reflection of the lights because of the cameras position, that would be an issue. It’s really a big challenge to check all these requirements. When we succeeded in 2007, we spent around $15-20 million with the additional costs of the lights. It was a big risk for me, but when we succeeded and we managed to shift from daylight to night rides we became internationally recognised because we were the first circuit in the world to do this.”
Such innovations have made Qatar a byword for sporting excellence and in overcoming the problems the country faces in hosting global events due to its climate. As such, Qatar is one of the frontrunners to be awarded a Formula 1 Grand Prix, something Mr Al-Attiya foresees “in 2016 or 2017.”
“Qatar will have a chance,” he adds. “We already meet all the criteria. It’s coming soon and we will manage to gain the trust of the Formula One family. We are really the strongest country that is a contender.”