UpdatedDec 16, 2011 5:46 AM ET
A year after Qatar became the first Arab country to win theright to host the World Cup, the little but wealthy Persian Gulfnation is immersed in efforts to make more history by bringing theOlympics to the Middle East in 2020.
Flush with billions of dollars from oil and gas sales, Qatarhopes to build on its surprise victory in winning the right to hostthe 2022 World Cup. Stuck between powerful Mideast rivals SaudiArabia and Iran, Qatar also aims to capitalize on its role as apeacemaker after a year of enormous political upheaval in theregion.
It was a tough year for Qatar, a small Muslim nation that hasgained influence in international diplomacy and sports over thepast decade. The country has never qualified for the World Cup andwas criticized for spending lavishly to defeat countries such asthe United States and Australia for the 2022 bid. Skeptics wereparticularly harsh after the downfall of Qatar’s top soccerofficial and former Asian federation president, Mohammed binHammam.
Just months after bin Hammam helped his country clinch the WorldCup, FIFA banned him from soccer for life for allegedly payingbribes in his unsuccessful campaign against Sepp Blatter to becomethe group’s president.
In interviews with The Associated Press, Qatari sports officialssaid the country has moved on from the World Cup controversy and isfully focused on the Olympics.
”The World Cup file is closed,” stated Sheik Saoud binAbdulrahman Al Thani, the secretary general of Qatar’s OlympicCommittee. ”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 avehicle to showcase its global aspirations. Doha successfullyhosted major sporting events such as the Asian Games in 2006 andannual tennis tournaments featuring many of the world’s top-rankedplayers. This year alone, the capital hosted Asia’s continentalsoccer tournament in January and the opening Diamond League trackmeet in May.
It was the soaring summer heat that quelled Qatar’s firstOlympic campaign four years ago. Since then, the desert countrywhere temperatures can reach 122 degrees in June and July won theright to host the 2022 World Cup based on a plan to cool thestadiums with innovative design and air-conditioning systems.
Soccer officials such as UEFA President Michel Platini havesince indicated they had be happy to reschedule European leagueschedules to grant the World Cup in Qatar to be played in thewinter.
During several meetings with the IOC to see if the board wouldbe able to accommodate Doha’s request to stage the games later inthe year, Saoud stated his city received a nod to hosting theOlympics between Sept. 20 and Oct. 20 if it submits the bid.
”We’ve learnt from the previous bid,” stated Saoud, who is amember Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family. ”We wanted to show that weare a strong, reliable partner. We are in love with sports and wewant to work together to bring the Olympics to Doha and share ourpassion with the region.”
The message the 2020 officials are trying to get across is notmuch different from the one they used four years ago.
In Doha, everybody from the conflict-prone region can get alongand the city can show the world a Middle East different than theyperceive it to be. However, bid officials stated the similarities tothe previous bid for the 2016 Games end there.
”We are in a much stronger position than we were four yearsago,” stated Noora al-Mannai, the CEO of the Doha 2020 bid.
Major infrastructure projects have been finished in the recentyears and sporting venues have been upgraded. The airport has beenexpanded and more hotels have been built. Doha’s road network hasgrown to ease crippling traffic around the capital and anational-wide metro system that will be able to carry 45,000commuters an hour by 2020 was commissioned earlier this year.
Qatar also has hosted speaks to ease conflicts around the region,including in Lebanon and Sudan’s Darfur region, and in the 1990sbroke ranks with Gulf neighbors and granted an Israeli trade officeto open in Doha.
Last month, the Gulf nation staged a 21st-century spin onpingpong diplomacy to raise the emirate’s profile by promotingpeace between rival nations through a one-day table tennistournament, pairing rival nations such as North Korea and SouthKorea.
And over the past year of the Arab Spring, Qatar contributed warplanes to NATO airstrikes in Gadhafi-ruled Libya, tried tonegotiate an exit for Yemen’s protest-battered president, AliAbdullah Saleh, and has taken the lead in Arab countries pressuringSyria’s Bashar Assad.
Qatar also has toned down the Gulf way of bragging about what itcan do with its vast resources. It has infused its ambitions with adose of modesty. It even appears to be learning how to be a betterloser after losing the bid for 2017 track worlds last month toLondon.
”We will win some, lose other, but we will learn from both,”Saoud said.
With a population of only 300,000 and substantial oil and gasreserves, Qatar has one of the highest per-capita incomes in theworld. It is set to be wealthy for a long time and can easilyoutspend all of its rivals in the bidding process for any sportingevent.
”Yes, we have money and it’s good to have it, but it alldepends how we spend it,” al-Mannai said. ”We select to investour money into making Qatar the leader of positive change.
”We believe that bringing the Olympics to the region is a bigpart of that effort.”
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