The first track championships in the Middle East

DOHA, Qatar — Like the sun rising in the east, some things are entirely predictable. 

1. Some number of athletes, particularly those from Europe, bitching about conditions at a world track and field championships. Observation: ’It’s hot.’ (Captains of the obvious!) Followed by hyperbole: a ‘disaster.’ 

2. The see-saw relationship with the press and track and field’s governing body. A few days into a championship, the press writes sky-is-falling stories. (Empty seats! It’s hot! A catastrophe!) The authorities naturally feel compelled to push back, IAAF president Seb Coe telling Associated Press in a story posted Wednesday that the complainers need to move along

“Can I just be a bit blunt about this?” Coe, elected here to a second four-year term as head of track and field’s world governing body, asked rhetorically. “The athletes talking about externalities are probably not the ones who are going to be walking home with medals from here. I have much, much bigger commitments and visions for our sport than to turn and head for home because we take an event into an area that poses problems.”

Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain winning the women’s 400 in the fastest time run in 34 years, 48.14 // Getty Images

Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain winning the women’s 400 in the fastest time run in 34 years, 48.14 // Getty Images

These 2019 IAAF world championships, now heading into the final weekend, seem destined to mark one of the most complex — and yet one of the most intriguing — legacies of any major championship from these first years of the 21st century. 

And not just for the IAAF, and track and field.

But for international sport, and the broader Olympic movement.

Of course, there are some glitches at these 2019 championships. That’s to be expected. But in the big picture?

Because it’s the big picture that matters. 

Yes, of course. it is hot in Doha, and because it’s a track championships they are running marathons and race walks here. 

But this is not about the heat. 

It was hot at the 2004 Athens Olympic marathon, where temperatures reached 86 Fahrenheit, or 30 degrees. It was hot at the 2007 Chicago marathon, which officials called to a stop after three and a half hours when the thermometer reached 88 Fahrenheit, or 31 Celsius. It was hot at the 2008 Beijing Olympic marathon, which Kenya’s Sammy Wanjiru famously won in 2:06.32 as the thermometer rose to 84 Fahrenheit, or 29 Celsius, with Beijing’s noxious air pollution thrown in. 

As hot as Doha is — and 28 of the 68 athletes in the women’s marathon did not finish — it is going to be hotter next year at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. That is all but a guarantee.

Inside Khalifa Stadium the air-conditioning system is a marvel. It works, and works great. 

There can be no dispute that what has gone down inside the stadium, on the track, has been world-class in every regard. Just to take Friday night: the American Dalilah Muhammad set a world record in the women’s 400-meter hurdles, running 52.16 seconds, four-hundredths faster than her own mark, set earlier this year; Kenya’s Conseslus Kipruto won the men’s 3k steeplechase in a world-lead 8:01.35, precisely one-hundredth of a second over Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia after a stirring chase down the homestretch; Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim won the men’s high jump in 2.37 meters, or 7 feet 9 1/4 inches, thrilling the home fans; and Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas destroyed the field in the men’s 400 on the way to winning in 43.48.

This the night after Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain went 48.14 to win the women’s 400 — the third-fastest time in history. It was the fastest women’s 400 run in 34 years. 

if 2019 is a test-run for 2022 and soccer — 2022 within the stadiums is going to be a huge success.

Outside, on the roads — well, As Coe said of the road racing, “It was a challenging climate. But the reality of it is we had a medical facility which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any championship — Olympics or world championships. I’d be surprised if you had the same facility in Tokyo. I hope they do but this is something really special.”

So if it’s not the heat, what is the bitching about?

It is about the empty seats?

The empty seats are not a good look. Not at all.

Yes, for sure when Doha bid for this event it promised Khalifa Stadium would be full.

Empty seats for the men’s decathlon 400 meters on Wednesday // Getty Images

Empty seats for the men’s decathlon 400 meters on Wednesday // Getty Images

No, no one foresaw Qatar subjected to a blockade by its regional neighbors. 

So — what, exactly, is it?

It’s about change. And confronting the new world we live in. One in which Doha, where some number of men in their classic white thobes and women in black abayas, is a capital of world sport. 

Which leads to the next, obvious set of questions: 

How much of the criticism is cultural insensitivity? How much is just plain bad manners — being an invited guest in someone’s house and not having the common sense to refrain from keeping your mouth shut because you’re feeling unsettled about being in a place where things look and feel maybe just a little different than what you’re used to? In Arabic culture, showing hospitality is a prized norm. Yet this is how visitors repay such hospitality? With a gross violation of manners? Did anyone’s mother not teach anything?

How much — let’s be real — is racism, a reaction to Arabic ways? 

Why is there always that reaction, and in particular from a western European viewpoint, to what academicians would call the classic “other”?

There are so many layers to the Doha story. Downtown Doha is an architect’s delight. For real. The skyscrapers, one after another, are incredible.For that, matter, The Museum of Islamic Art, on the bay, is in every regard world-class. 

Over the last 20 years, Doha has emerged — this is difficult for many around the world to understand — as a capital of world sport. It put on the 2006 Asian Games. The 2010 world indoor track and field championships. The 2014 short-course swim championships. The 2018 gymnastics championships. 

The list goes on and on, and of course in 2022 Doha will put on that soccer World Cup, and construction here is everywhere.

In 2014, Doha was awarded these 2019 track championships.

There are those who say that 2019 is the final legacy of the Lamine Diack years. Diack was the long-serving IAAF president, now under judicial inquiry in France, and a preliminary charge of “active corruption” was filed in May against Nasser al-Khelaifi, the chairman of the beIN media group, who also runs the French soccer team Paris Saint-Germain, the case focusing on a $3.5 million payment to an IAAF official. He denies wrongdoing.

Doha 2019 is not the final piece of the Diack legacy.

That would be the championships in 2021 in Eugene, Oregon.

Let us pause here because Eugene — also a matter of reported law enforcement interest — is no logistical bed of roses. It is short of money. There aren’t anywhere near enough hotels in Eugene or next-door Springfield, and two years from now the bitching is going to be all about driving two hours from Portland to get to Eugene, and where the hell is there going to be to park? 

Those 2021 worlds will be the first-ever in the United States— the IAAF worlds have been an every-other-year event since 1983 — and that brings us to the point. 

This is the real Captain Obvious no one likes to talk about because— even if there is nothing nefarious going on — it takes a lot of money to put on a championships. There’s no federal subsidy in the United States; this is why it has taken all these years to get a championships to an American location and why it’s going to take the likes of Nike and, still, some creative financing to make it work.

This stuff is hard. You don’t think so?

Evidence: the inaugural edition of the Association of National Olympic Committee’s Beach Games. Originally, ANOC picked San Diego. Problem: San Diego literally could not make it work financially. When that became clear, ANOC unceremoniously yanked the Games out of San Diego. Where will the Beach Games be held, and when? Next week. Here, in Doha. 

Because big-time events take real money, the IAAF went to Korea in 2011, to Moscow in 2013, to Beijing in 2015 and it’s why it went to Doha in 2019. Even allowing for the possibility — perhaps the probability — of Diack-related negotiation, these meets then had to be produced, and that then took significant monies. 

With interruption for its European roots in Berlin in 2009, London in 2017 and looking ahead to Budapest in 2023 — the IAAF has to now go around the world to places where this sort of production can be done. 

Strike that, actually — it wants to go around the world, because doing so affords the IAAF the opportunity to take track and field outside Europe, and in particular western Europe.

People, that is — in general — a good thing.

This 21st century is almost surely going to see track and field championships in places such as Africa — the International Olympic Committee is taking its Summer Youth Games to Senegal in 2022 — and the Caribbean. 

This championships in Doha is the start of all of this. Bottom line: it’s the first championships in the Middle East. 

As Coe said in another interview, this one with the French wire service AFP, “If we’re a global sport, we have to be seen as global.

“It can’t keep going back to the same eight or nine places that we’ve always sort of focused on in the past. 

“There are places which are going to take longer for us to go but people have to believe this sport is theirs — it’s not just rooted in a handful of European capitals.”