Qatar eyes Olympics after World Cup victory

Dec 17 2011 - 5:21pm

DOHA, Qatar -- A year after Qatar became the first Arab country to win the right to host the World Cup, the tiny but wealthy Persian Gulf nation is immersed in efforts to make more history by bringing the Olympics to the Middle East in 2020.

Flush with billions of dollars from oil and gas sales, Qatar hopes to build on its surprise victory in winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Stuck between powerful Mideast rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar also aims to capitalize on its role as a peacemaker after a year of enormous political upheaval in the region.

It was a tough year for Qatar, a small Muslim nation that has gained influence in international diplomacy and sports over the past decade. The country has never qualified for the World Cup and was criticized for spending lavishly to defeat countries such as the United States and Australia for the 2022 bid. Skeptics were particularly harsh after the downfall of Qatar's top soccer official and former Asian federation president, Mohammed bin Hammam.

Just months after bin Hammam helped his country clinch the World Cup, FIFA banned him from soccer for life for allegedly paying bribes in his unsuccessful campaign against Sepp Blatter to become the group's president.

In interviews with The Associated Press, Qatari sports officials said the country has moved on from the World Cup controversy and is fully focused on the Olympics.

"The World Cup file is closed," said Sheik Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the secretary general of Qatar's Olympic Committee. "We are thinking ahead and planning for the future, bidding for Olympic Games and maybe other events."

Over the past decade, Qatar has been targeting sports as a vehicle to showcase its global aspirations. Doha successfully hosted major sporting events such as the Asian Games in 2006 and annual tennis tournaments featuring many of the world's top-ranked players. This year alone, the capital hosted Asia's continental soccer tournament in January and the opening Diamond League track meet in May.

Doha is vying for the 2020 Olympics with Baku, Azerbaijan; Istanbul, Turkey; Madrid and Rome. The candidate cities must submit their plans for the games to the International Olympic Committee by February. The IOC executive board will meet in May to decide whether to keep all candidates or reduce the list. The IOC will select the host city in September 2013.

The meeting in May is key for Doha. The Gulf city was eliminated early from the campaign for the 2016 Olympics after the IOC board rejected Doha's request to stage the games outside the preferred July-August time slot, saying it would conflict with the international sporting calendar.

It was the soaring summer heat that quelled Qatar's first Olympic campaign four years ago. Since then, the desert country where temperatures can reach 122 degrees in June and July won the right to host the 2022 World Cup based on a plan to cool the stadiums with innovative design and air-conditioning systems.

Soccer officials such as UEFA President Michel Platini have since indicated they'd be happy to reschedule European league schedules to allow the World Cup in Qatar to be played in the winter.

During several meetings with the IOC to see if the board would be able to accommodate Doha's request to stage the games later in the year, Saoud said his city received a nod to hosting the Olympics between Sept. 20 and Oct. 20 if it submits the bid.

"We've learnt from the previous bid," said Saoud, who is a member Qatar's ruling Al Thani family. "We wanted to show that we are a strong, reliable partner. We are in love with sports and we want to work together to bring the Olympics to Doha and share our passion with the region."

The message the 2020 officials are trying to get across is not much different from the one they used four years ago.

In Doha, everybody from the conflict-prone region can get along and the city can show the world a Middle East different than they perceive it to be. However, bid officials said the similarities to the previous bid for the 2016 Games end there.

"We are in a much stronger position than we were four years ago," said Noora al-Mannai, the CEO of the Doha 2020 bid.

Major infrastructure projects have been completed in the recent years and sporting venues have been upgraded. The airport has been expanded and more hotels have been built. Doha's road network has grown to ease crippling traffic around the capital and a national-wide metro system that will be able to carry 45,000 commuters an hour by 2020 was commissioned earlier this year.

Qatar also has hosted talks to ease conflicts around the region, including in Lebanon and Sudan's Darfur region, and in the 1990s broke ranks with Gulf neighbors and allowed an Israeli trade office to open in Doha.

Last month, the Gulf nation staged a 21st-century spin on pingpong diplomacy to raise the emirate's profile by promoting peace between rival nations through a one-day table tennis tournament, pairing rival nations such as North Korea and South Korea.

And over the past year of the Arab Spring, Qatar contributed war planes to NATO airstrikes in Gadhafi-ruled Libya, tried to negotiate an exit for Yemen's protest-battered president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and has taken the lead in Arab countries pressuring Syria's Bashar Assad.

Qatar also has toned down the Gulf way of bragging about what it can do with its vast resources. It has infused its ambitions with a dose of modesty. It even appears to be learning how to be a better loser after losing the bid for 2017 track worlds last month to London.

"We will win some, lose other, but we'll learn from both," Saoud said.

With a population of only 300,000 and substantial oil and gas reserves, Qatar has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world. It is set to be wealthy for a long time and can easily outspend all of its rivals in the bidding process for any sporting event.

But important lessons have been learned from both, the failed Olympic bid in 2008 and the successful World Cup campaign last year. Also, the IOC has shortened the international campaign phase of the bid process for the 2020 contest in an effort to cut spending. The five cities will only be able to start international lobbying nine months before the vote instead of previous 16 months.

"Yes, we have money and it's good to have it, but it all depends how we spend it," al-Mannai said. "We choose to invest our money into making Qatar the leader of positive change.

"We believe that bringing the Olympics to the region is a big part of that effort."

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