The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

I should preface this post by allowing that I have been and still am a sports fan. I enjoy football, baseball, basketball and track and field. Over the years though, my fanaticism has been tempered.

“When cash is handed over to soccer officials in the world, it is invariably siphoned by dodgy officials. Still, the Qatari tournament represents everything rotten about global soccer.” ~ Franklin Foer writing for The Atlantic

“The humidity kills you. There is nothing to breathe. I thought I wouldn’t finish. It’s disrespect towards the athletes.” ~ Volha Mazuronak, Marathoner, Belarus.

Eight young women, finely tuned, high performance coiled springs crouch in the starting blocks. The time for butterflies has long passed. Now is the time for concentration. Now is the time to fold into the blocks in anticipation. Now is the time, God or muscle memory willing to time their launch, not a microsecond before the crack of the starter’s gun and not a microsecond after the competition. The crack and they drive off the line straight as a pistol shot 100 meters down the track. The woman with the flowing hair colored like a rainbow snowcone leaps to the front and rejects the pretenders. From gun to tape Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce preserves her dominance as the world’s fastest woman. She exults in victory. In any normal year she would parade with the Jamaican flag draped over her shoulders to the cheers of a capacity crowd. Not so this year. The stadium is for all intents and purposes – empty.

Sunday, after having had my fill of a landscaping project I plopped onto the sofa ready to watch football and be useless. When I turned on the TV there, to my surprise was the World Athletics Championships ( aka World Track and Field Championships). Either this was a 45 day tape delay or the schedule was changed or I’ve been so out of touch with track and field that I don’t know what’s what with the sport anymore. Turns out the latter two are correct. Yes I’ve been out of touch and yes the schedule was changed. The World Championships are normally held in mid-August but since the event is being held in Doha the organizers decided to push the championships back in order to get “cooler” weather. 

Where the hell is Doha?

I asked that same question, looked it up and learned that Doha is in Qatar, a small country on the Arab Peninsula. Which begged some questions. Why would you hold the 2nd most prestigious track event (the Olympics being the crown jewel) in a place where the average temperature ranges from a low of 84 to a high of 102℉ (29 – 39℃)? Why award a track and field competition to a country with a negligible at best, track and field tradition? The same questions might apply to the awarding of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, also to Qatar. 

Besides being a location that’s brutal for athletic competition what exactly does Qatar have to offer? Spectators who are willing to travel across the world for a major sporting event also look for something to do in the host country. Maybe it’s just me who’s happy staying in a cabin next to a trout stream but I just don’t see the attraction of baking in a place where the tourist attractions are oceans of sand dunes, the relief of air conditioning and brightly lit, modern high rises. built using forced labor. 

“It’s disrespect towards the athletes.”

Given what I saw on television and what I learned since, I imagine that the officials of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body for athletics were feeling some heat, not from the desert clime, but because the event was off to a shaky start from day one. In fact decathlon world-record holder, Kevin Mayer, cut right to the quick, calling the event “a disaster.”

“The stadium was empty and it’s really disappointing,” ~ Katerina Stefanidi, bronze medal winner in pole vault.

One look at the stands at Khalifa International Stadium had me wondering if tens of thousands of fans had gone to the event dressed as empty seats. Sadly enough for the athletes those were indeed empty seats. In an apparent attempt to camouflage the desolation much of the upper section of the stadium was covered with tarps emblazoned with pithy sport related quotes, thus reducing the seating capacity from 48,000 to 21,000. That bit of subterfuge failed. The stadium still had the aura of an abandoned mineshaft. 

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The empty seats at Doha

The Sunday session which I watched featured what would normally be a marquis event, the women’s 100 meter final. Despite the brilliant pre-race lightshow the place had all the life and vibrancy of a mausoleum. What normally is THE premier event, the men’s 100 meters, the evening before, was held in front of a mere 11,300 spectators (For some perspective, when the Athletics Championships were held in London in 2017 the total attendance figure was 705,000 for ten days. You do the math for average daily attendance.).

And still the abandoned sprint events were glamor sessions compared to another highly anticipated event, the women’s marathon. In what might have been a decision to avoid the ignominy of having highly conditioned athletes dropping dead in the streets of Doha the marathon start time was moved to midnight. While the decision may certainly have saved a life it put a steamy damper on the race itself.

Part of the thrill of running in a world championship or any distance competition is to perform in front of throngs of cheering crowds. It’s the crowd that’s part of the reward for months of training; to run through streets lined with cheering fans. There was none of that at Doha. It was a highrise ghost town with the streets populated mostly with security and aid personnel and stalwart journalists willing to brave the heat.

Even with the ridiculous start time, conditions were less than ideal and bordered on the dangerous with temperatures exceeding 89.6℉ (32℃) and humidity levels above 70 percent. Belarus’s Volha Mazuronak, who finished fifth, held nothing back in her criticism of the IAAF, “The humidity kills you,” Mazuronak said. “There is nothing to breathe. I thought I wouldn’t finish. It’s disrespect towards the athletes. A bunch of high-ranked officials gathered and decided that it would take the world championships here but they are sitting in the cool and they are probably sleeping right now.”

In the end, of the 68 starters, 28 failed to finish and during the race many were carried off the course on stretchers looking “in a bad way.” Said Canada’s Lyndsay Tessier, who finished ninth, “You see somebody down on the course and it’s just extremely grounding and scary. That could be you in the next kilometre, the next 500m. It was really scary and intimidating and daunting. I’m just really grateful to have finished standing up.”

As someone who’s done a lifetime of distance running I get it. A marathon is a daunting task that requires the acceptance of pain that shouldn’t include fear for one’s life.

Below, Scenes of Doha’s midnight marathon.

Heralded distance runner Haile Gebrselassie was critical of both the decision to hold the event in Doha and to stage a marathon there.  “It was a mistake to conduct the championship in such hot weather in Doha, especially the marathon race. As someone who has been in the sport for many years, I’ve found it unacceptable. God forbid, but people could have died running in such weather conditions,”

For it’s part the governing body stated proudly (and no doubt with no small measure of relief), that the race was completed without a case of heat stroke. To be able to claim that nobody croaked while racing in a cauldron in front of almost nobody seems like damning with faint praise. 

I felt for the athletes. They worked doggedly to get to this pinacle only to be screwed by a governing body which is supposed to be working on their behalf and for the betterment of the sport; neither of which happened at Doha. Now the IAAF is on the receiving end of almost universal criticism that’s as blistering as the weather conditions. Call it karma,or bad juju the IAAF is dining on the just deserts of its own bad judgement, greed and yes, flagging morals. 

Why Doha? Why indeed.

In 2010 when Qatar was awarded the World Cup it’s dismal human rights record, already known to human rights organizations was thrown into stark universal light. Migrant workers make up 95 percent of Qatar’s labor force working mainly in construction, hospitality and domestic work.

Qatar’s treatment of migrant labor has been characterized by forced labor, exploitation and human trafficking. Workers have had their pay withheld and have been compensated for less than originally promised with few legal options for redress. In 2018 a group of 1200 workers were forced to survive for weeks without electricity or running water. In that same year workers were obliged to work during the hot daytime summer hours. 

Qatar has a long history of discrimination against women and a criminal code that punishes same sex relations with sentences that range from imprisonment to death. Domestic violence and marital rape are not considered to be criminal offenses under the penal code.

So, given a dismal human rights record, a climate that’s hardly conducive to athletic competition in a country with a declining tourist industry why Doha? The answers to that question are multifold, interrelated and quite simple; money, dubious promises, greased palms, and a faulty moral system that shortchanged the athletes and did a disservice to the reputation of the sport. 

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In 2014, well after Qatar’s human rights abuses were brought to light the IAAF was tasked to choose between Doha, Barcelona, Spain and Eugene, Oregon. Mere minutes before the vote was taken Qatar applied the grease that turned their wheel in the form of £23.5 million (roughly 29 million dollars) toward extra sponsorship and a promise to build ten new tracks around the world. Qatar also promised a full stadium. Following Qatar’s “purchase” of the championships IAAF executive José María Odriozola opined, “All Doha have is money.”

“Sports don’t build character, they reveal it.”

a famous American basketball coach once said. That’s most true when it comes to the big shots and poobahs that run sports (and this would include America’s National Football League and National Collegiate Athletic Association). The selling of major sporting events like the Athletic Championships and the World Cup points to a moral void that allows governing bodies to essentially pimp their sports.

Over the years and especially most recently FIFA has shown itself to have a moral code roughly on par with Al Capone and Pablo Escobar. Bad enough that the 2018 World Cup was awarded to Russia (a human rights scofflaw run by a former KGB thug) but then FIFA went all in on greed and moral turpitude when it awarded the cup to Qatar which has zero soccer tradition and summer temperatures that forced FIFA to have the tournament moved to the winter, smack in the middle of the major soccer leagues’ seasons. The soccer gods got around that snag by declaring a one month suspension in league play. There was absolutely no soccer related reason to award the World Cup to Qatar. It was blind greed and a blind eye to human rights violations. In 2015 karma and the FBI put the hammer down on FIFA officials who were indicted on charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering. 

Qatar isn’t the first nation to be awarded a major sporting event despite a dismal human rights record. Qatar is most certainly not the first nation to employ shameless payola in order to get an athletic event. Russia just recently hosted the 2014 Sochi Games and the most recent World Cup. In 2008 the summer Olympics were held in Beijing which will host the next winter games. All three are dirty but they managed to deliver the most perks, the largest trunks full of money and the most extravagance.

The Altruistic Fantasy of Sport

It would be nice to think that the sparse crowds and criticism shown the IAAF are due to  outrage for rewarding a shameless human rights violator; that the IAAF is being made an example of. Sadly that’s not the case. The sparse crowds and criticism are over holding an athletic competition in a place that’s neither suitable for athletic competition or tourism.

In 2014 Qatar’s human rights record had been made clear. If the big shots of the IAAF had had any testicular fortitude at all they would have taken a stance for the benefit of track and field and in opposition to a human rights violator and told Qatar what they could do with their promises and payola. But where sports is involved matters of principle matter little; not to the people who run the sports or the fans.

The giant sports organizations like FIFA, the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) publicly trumpet the flowery feel good rhetoric of sport as an international kumbaya but in the back rooms the real language of sport is money, and show.

Every four years the IOC looks for a bigger and glitzier party and its difficult to have a big, gaudy party while at the same time claiming to carry the banner of altruism. The IOC’s promotes a shameless myth; “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

How can any of those stated goals be reconciled with the auctioning of the games to any but the absolute most rogue states? How are those goals in keeping with the fact that holding a big international party means that the party sight has to look pristine? When the time comes to hold an international party the streets are swept clean of the street people. You wouldn’t want the world seeing your dirty laundry, your ugly truths.

Most recently it was the poor of Rio de Janeiro who were moved out of their neighborhoods to make way for hotels, parking lots, venues and media centers. Brazil managed to afford $20 billion dollars to pay for the infrastructure of the 2016 games. This begs the question, if you could come up with all that money for a two week sporting event why could you never come up with that kind of scratch to help the poor or improve the general infrastructure?  

“In order to build new facilities needed for the (Rio) Games, lucrative real estate deals were negotiated with private companies, many of them with close ties to Brazilian government officials. In the process, poor families were often forcibly pushed out of the way to make space for what will become luxury developments after the Games.” Reported The Los Angeles Times. 

And it isn’t just the clear human rights miscreants who face the dilemma of hiding the poor. In 2028 that difficulty will fall on Los Angeles. How will Los Angeles handle it?

What if they held a sporting event and nobody came?

Now here’s where I put to rest the idea that there are no stupid questions as I throw out a series of rhetorical and probably laughable propositions.

Do we as fans hold some responsibility because we turn a blind eye to the corruption and greed of the governing bodies?  Are criminal regimes emboldened and legitimized  when governing bodies award their countries’ high profile events and sports fans flock to view them? What if they held a World Cup or an Olympics and nobody came? What if moral outrage somehow held sway over sports fanaticism and the Beijing Winter Games were held in empty venues? Do we as fans have some moral obligation to dictate where and how our sports entertainment is generated?

Sports fans may harrumph and fuss when they learn that Beijing scored another Olympics but as the games approach all of China’s crimes are forgotten, at least for two weeks. Sports fans need that quadrennial fix of a mega competition and even the casual viewer will gush over the cuddly, cutesy mascot and hearts around the world will be warmed by the notion that sport is bringing the world together while behind the scenes  the host country’s poor are being shuttled out of sight and out of mind by a regime that might find it most convenient to disappear them if it weren’t for bad publicity.

Five years ago the IAAF in an act of bad behavior rewarded Qatar’s bad behavior by awarding that nation the 2019 world championships. Ironically the IAAF’s bad behavior is being rewarded by a heavy dose of bad publicity.

I used to buy into the ideas that sports build character and that athletic competition brings people together. I used to have an undying faith in the purity of sport. I would watch Olympic competition into the early morning hours, warmed by the elixir of sport as the great unifier. Sooner or later you lift the veil and the warts and blemishes of sports are bared. The ugly business end of sports becomes clear. Athletes may compete for the love and passion of their games but those who administer the games, the sellers and the buyers are little more than pimps and whores.  

And this final sad postscript. As an American, I would have to admit that the antics of the current ignoble administration would rightly and morally preclude the awarding of any major sporting event to the United States.

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5 thoughts on “Auctioning Sports

  1. What’s more, now that climate change is undeniable, the gross waste of building sport infrastructure is also reprehensible, as is the mass travel to the venues.

    1. Paulie says:

      Thank you Audrey. In addition to the mass travel to venues is the traffic and congestion that occurs at the venues. The San Francisco Bay Area has for years vied for an Olympics and every time that the Bay Area has been rejected I breathe a sigh of relief.
      I like sports and I enjoy watching but I don’t feel quite right watching an event that was awarded to a nation that has displaced the homeless, used forced labor or is a gross human right violator. I hardly watched any of the Beijing Games, didn’t watch any of the Russian World Cup and watched only one session of the Doha championship.

  2. This belongs on the op-ed page of every major newspaper in the world. Oh, and did I ever mention what a splendid writer you are?

    1. Paulie says:

      Thank you so much for the compliments. I don’t know whether I want to deal with all the blow back of op-ed pages. I do honestly find myself torn between wanting to watch these events and having some pangs of guilt knowing what goes into staging these things.

      1. You’re welcome. I fullly understand both points. Still, your arguments are at once passionate, reasoned, and well written. That’s a rare combination these days. More people should be exposed to your writing — and this particular message.

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