By athlete performance, we have just enjoyed the most successful World Athletics Championship since its inception in 1983. And we have witnessed a global TV audience that, for the most part, outstrips our last three World Championships. Actually, for those of us who have followed the sport closely over the years, we instinctively thought as much as the competition unfurled and before the number crunchers got to work. Anyway, nice to have it confirmed all the same.
Yes, too many empty seats at the beginning and an inevitable focus on this from the media, which used it as a crowbar for the charge that in a country that really got athletics, the stadium should have been stuffed to the gunwales from the off. Which of course, it rarely is.
But that wasn’t the only charge which can in large part be countered by the quarter century of Qatar staging athletics’ events including a World Indoor Championships, a solid Diamond League launch pad for the season over the last decade, and the multi-million dollar investment in the hard and soft infrastructure which supports its domestic programmes and is made available for a large chunk of the world’s athletes. How many countries today can say they have a national sport day where every school child participates, some of it competitive, some participatory?
No, the real toxicity in the press conferences I was cross-examined in, and the scores of interviews I gave, was more visceral and basic. For many of the interlocuters, the underlying theme was clear. They just didn’t want to be in Doha. And a melange of a charge sheet that seemed to grow by the interview including the heat, human rights, climate change, labour conditions and technologies to perfect the field of play were thrown into the mix. And as the competition rolled out, the longer the charge sheet. The opening and closing press conferences for the championship were mired in such questions. All fine with me. But tiresomely predictable. And asked by questioners who seemed a little thin on historical perspective.
As I flew home from Doha, I raked through the embers of those conferences and interviews, questioning the reason why these observations should have surfaced and with such vehemence. Was I missing something? The case for the prosecution was clear, if a tad scattergun. So let me attempt one for the defence. We are all hewn from a suffusion of family, geography, education and experience, which in my case included an international athletics’ career of fifteen years. And thirty years beyond that in parliamentary and sporting politics. I suppose it is also inevitable that my views about the overwhelmingly virtuous power of sport beyond the field of play is born from that mix.
Forty years ago, on the eve of the Moscow Olympic Games, my youngest sister left the house for school and moments later reappeared in the kitchen. Overnight, graffiti had been splashed on the garage door. On inspection, it was a swastika. This was probably my first direct exposure to the collision of politics and sport.
I was at that time, noisily outspoken on British government policy, inspired by their counterparts in the USA to boycott the Moscow Games in the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. The cowards, under the protection of nightfall, that vandalised our door assumed my provenance was Jewish – it didn’t much matter but actually it was Indian. My views on a sporting event going to a communist country with a very questionable record on human rights was enough.
Days later, my father was called into the foreign office to see a young Minister of State, Douglas Hurd (eventually to become Foreign Secretary) who, in essence, encouraged him to quieten his son. Anyone who knew my father will need no verbatim account of that exchange! Months later, I went to Moscow. In no way was this a seal of approval for their domestic or foreign policy. But it was my unflinching belief that sport has the ability, over the long haul, to flick the social, political and cultural dial in a way that few, if any, other world actors on the global stage can.
When all was said and done, those countries that refused to go to Moscow achieved nothing other than destroying the dreams and aspirations of their young Olympians. By the time we had assembled in Los Angeles four years later, the Soviet Union still occupied Afghanistan and then executed a meaningless tit-for-tat by not attending the LA Games, citing security rather than political reasons.
When the five-rings moved to Seoul in South Korea, barely half the diplomatic world recognised the host country and yet North and South Korea still marched into the stadium together. And the Paralympics that year set in train a framework for disability rights in a country that had largely looked the other way when meeting the needs of people with disability and impairment. In the margins of the opening ceremony of the Afro-Asian games in Hyderabad in India in 2004, which I attended, and at a time when the host nation’s relationship with neighbours Pakistan was so bad that they were virtually on a war footing, two sets of foreign ministers agreed that the reintroduction of a Test series between the two cricket-adoring nations might ease cross border tensions. It did.
I could continue to furnish so many examples of sport playing a central role in social change. From the Berlin Games of Owens, the London Games in 1948 when Dutch athlete, the incomparable Fanny Blankers Koen dismantled the nostrum that women weren’t hard-wired mentally or physically to be taken seriously in sport. Or the black power salute of John Carlos and Tommy Smith in 1968 that helped drive change for black empowerment. And athletics doing much and more than any sport to nudge these changes.
I have always thought we don’t make as much as we should of our history and not just the breathtaking feats of our athletes in the stadium. It was for that malaise that I hope our newly formed Heritage Dept at World Athletics will address. Sport is not and never will be a universal panacea for society’s ills. It is equally naïve to think that we can run under the banner of keeping politics out of sport. Keeping party politics out of sport is an entirely different issue and one that we should forever be vigilant. But sport always gets closer to providing solutions to many of society’s intractable and politically entrenched pathologies. And that is not to say that we can be oblivious to the social and political landscape of those countries to which we take our events, or without censure when they fall short of the universal and sporting values for which we stand.
Our global sporting relationships allow us to shine a spotlight on issues that most jobbing politicians and touring ministers in search of trade deals, or the management of containment, will pragmatically shy away from. I know my conversations with political leaderships are often more acute and possibly uncomfortable than those they have with my counterparts in other walks of business and life.
Sport could and should be asked to play a more hands-on role. It is the most potent social worker and the deftest of soft international power out there. If some of those agencies vilifying sport for expanding its global footprint into countries that don’t always meet with our liberal democratic mores, realise they could join forces with sport to become collaborators, rather than competitors, we could achieve much. If we predicate our sporting relationships on political systems and their fault lines, international sport will wither on the vine. I have never yet seen sport inhibit the social or political advancement in any country it has plied its trade. In fact, quite the opposite.
So to all those doubters in Doha, please give sport a chance. It rarely lets us down. And if you are not prepared to, please don’t lend your names to organisations that promote sport and its good causes, if when push comes to shove, you are not prepared for large parts of the world to really share in that concept.
Sport, like every other sector, has to grasp the realities of the 21st century, not those of the 19th. And for those who were taking us to task for our presence in Doha, I only hope when your time comes to host these events, the world doesn’t pick holes in your own national fragilities, we all have them, and conclude that you should be barred from hosting them.
I will continue to advocate for our events to be held around the world. When 86 countries set a national record and 76 countries made it to a final or top 8 finish spot, it is the right and obvious thing to do.
But there is one other reason I have not fully touched on in this blog and that is the role sport plays in the health of our people.
Global TV audiences excite and sometimes motivate people, but hosting an event can lead to real and tangible goals by cities and countries to embrace sport and encourage participation. It may take time but it is time I believe is worth spending.
I grew up on the shoulders of sport giants, a school system that embraced sport and parents that encouraged us to be active. I have watched this wither and in some countries die, over the last three decades and I worry for the future of our children’s children if their parents have not been exposed to sport in their early years.
How can we ensure a healthy society in the future if our day-to-day role models have never had the opportunity to participate in sport and reap the benefits? If hosting our events provides a focus for cities and countries to tackle inactivity. If our athletes continue to perform superbly. And if our sport is entertaining enough to encourage an enviable and growing global audience, then we must be doing something right.