Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman al Thani

This just has to stop

The international sportswriters' association, which goes by the acronym AIPS, held its two-day executive committee meeting this week in Doha, Qatar. The meeting's guest of honor was Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the secretary general of the Qatar Olympic Committee, who is keenly sophisticated and moves fluidly between Arab and western cultures. The Qataris bid -- unsuccessfully -- for the Summer Games of 2016 and 2020, cut early on in each round by the International Olympic Committee. Of course, soccer's World Cup is set for Qatar in 2022.

His Excellency told the ladies and gentlemen of the press that sport is fundamentally one of the pillars of Qatar's development plan. This year, the Qataris will organize 40 major sports events. By 2020, he said, the goal is to stage a big event every week of the year.

And, of course, he said, to bid again for the Olympics. Maybe for 2024. Possibly 2028.

If you have been to Doha, actually been on the ground, you know that there is serious commitment there. The new president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, has long had extensive ties to the Middle East, so one would imagine the climate -- so to speak -- for a Gulf bid would be as good as it could ever get.

There's only one thing that could stop a Doha bid dead in its tracks, and it's not the heat. Nor is it the capacity, infrastructure or even the impact on television schedules.

It's this:

The start of the women's 100-meter individual medley  at the Doha World Cup event // photo courtesy Universal Sports Network

This photo offers irrefutable evidence of everything the Olympic values -- friendship, excellence, respect -- are not.

This sort of intolerance, indeed discrimination, has to stop. Now. And forever more.

This screenshot shows the start of the women's 100-meter individual medley at swimming's World Cup stop in Doha -- happening more or less about the same stretch of time His Excellency and some of the world's leading writers were meeting to talk about all the exciting things happening in the Qatari capital.

In Lane 5 is Amit Ivry of Israel.

The Israeli flag that should be depicted in the graphic display in the host broadcast feed has instead been washed out.

This incident marked just one of several episodes directed against Israeli swimmers at the World Cup stops in both Dubai (Oct. 17-18) and Doha (Oct. 20-21).

On Day 1 in Dubai, Israeli swimmers were not properly identified, either by announcers on the scoreboard. That way, their name and national flag wouldn't have to be shown, a veteran national-team swimmer, Gal Nevo, told a leading Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz.

Things in Dubai were apparently back to normal by Day 2. Nevo, for instance, announced as from the country "I-S-R" on Day 1, was announced as from "Israel" on Day 2.

He said, "Suddenly, you arrive in a country that has refused to recognize you until now, and know that the next time we'll be here they won't play those games with us. I don't know how many television viewers we're talking about but the people in the emirate saw the Israeli flag over and over again, and were exposed to the country's sporting aspect."

That this sort of thing happened in Dubai can not have come entirely as a huge shock.

After all, this was where in 2009 the Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was refused a visa for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships; tour officials fined organizers $300,000 and said all qualified players had to be able to play or the tournament's sanctioning would be at risk. Peer has since played in Dubai.

That said, recent years have seen a veritable catalogue of incidents in which politics and sport have mixed in all the wrong ways, consistently with the Israelis as the target.

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, for instance, Iran's judo world champion, Arash Miresmaeli, refused to take to the mat for a first-round match against Israel's Ehud Vaks in the under-66 kg class. Iranian officials later awarded Miresmaeli the same $120,000 given its gold-medal winners at those 2004 Games for what was called a "great act of self-sacrifice."

At the 2008 Beijing Games, Iran's Mohammed Alirezaei refused to compete alongside Israeli swimmer Tom Be'eri in the heats of the 100 backstroke.

At the 2010 Olympic Youth Games in Singapore, in the final of the boys under-48 kg class in taekwondo, Gili Haimovitz of Israel won when Mohammed Soleimani of Iran proved a no-show, officially claiming he had aggravated an old injury to his left leg. Soleimani skipped the medals ceremony as well -- missing the Israeli flag and anthem.

In 2012, Algerian kayaker Nasreddine Baghdadi withdrew from a World Cup event in which Israeli Roei Yellin was entered, and the president of the Algerian Olympic Committee, Rachid Hanifi, said all its athletes might refuse to compete against Israelis at the London Games: "There is an obligation to ask our government if we have to meet Israel in sport."

That prompted the then-IOC president, Jacques Rogge, to declare that only serious injury would be accepted as an excuse for not competing at the London Games, that suspicious withdrawals would be checked by an "independent medical board" and that bogus withdrawals would lead to unspecified sanctions.

Just two weeks ago, Tunisia's tennis federation ordered its top player, Malek Jaziri, ranked 169th in the world, not to play Israel's Amir Weintraub in the quarterfinals of a lower-tier ATP event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

International Tennis Federation spokesman Nick Imison told Associated Press he believed the case was a first-of-its-kind in tennis.

The constitution of swimming's international federation, which goes by the acronym FINA, is absolutely clear that discrimination on the grounds of "race, sex, religion or political affiliations" is out of bounds.

True, FINA officials absolutely had been put on notice by events in Dubai. But Doha? This was where a 20-year-old Shahar Peer in 2008 -- the year before the episode in Dubai -- had reached the round--of-16. Moreover, her first night in the city, the tourney director had even taken her and her entourage out to dinner at a Moroccan restaurant in the traditional Souk district marketplace.

And yet -- Doha.

According to a report in the Times of Israel, it's not just that the Israeli flag was not displayed in the computer graphics of the races. Some races in which Israelis swam were not broadcast. The Israeli flag was removed from outside the venue; a tweet was posted Sunday complaining about the flag's presence before it was taken down from outside the swim complex, according to the Doha News.

How this all happened remains entirely unclear. Who precisely was responsible -- also uncertain.

FINA on Wednesday issued a statement saying that it reacted to events in both Dubai and Doha as soon as it knew. In Doha, for instance, FINA officials say they were told the full scope of what had happened only 15 minutes before the end of Day 2.

The statement says FINA "guarantees" that "all steps will be taken in the future for such acts not to occur again."

This is particularly key because the world short-course championships are due to be held in Doha Dec. 3-7, 2014. Dubai and Doha are also scheduled to host further World Cup events ahead of the worlds.

FINA's executive director, Cornel Marculescu, told Associated Press the two organizing committees apologized for what he called these "stupid things." He also said, "Next year we have the world championships and these things will not happen anymore."

Marculescu is absolutely right to label the incidents so forthrightly and to  say enough is enough.

Now: Doha has a huge incentive to bid for the Olympics.

There are all kinds of bold steps that could be taken. For instance, there are apologies of all sorts. Some are private. Some are meant to be much more public.

Or: there are ways of reaching out, gestures of goodwill -- say, swim clinics in which regional stars teach local kids. Could it hurt to invite Amit Ivry, winner of the silver medal in the 100 medley at the Doha 2013 World Cup?

At the least -- all the Israelis all ought to be taken out to dinner next December at the worlds, everyone ought to shake hands and pose for some tourist-like pictures in the Souk and then all hands can get on with the business of swimming.

The Israelis -- just like they were anybody else. That's what they, and everybody, deserve.

After all, that's the fundamental promise inherent in Olympic sport -- that everyone can get along and that everyone deserves a chance to do their best, however good-enough that best might be. If the Qataris want to invite the world in 2024 or 2028 and be taken dead seriously about it -- an Olympics is way different than the World Cup -- that is the deal. Anything less is a non-starter.


Three for 2020 in, Doha and Baku out

QUEBEC CITY, Canada -- In cutting the 2020 Summer Games bid city field Wednesday from five cities to three, the International Olympic Committee eliminated both Baku and Doha, immediately raising the provocative question of whether Doha -- which, let's face it, is due to put on soccer's 2022 World Cup -- is ever going to get its chance to make its case before the full IOC. The IOC's 15-member policy-making executive board, meeting here amid the sprawling SportAccord assembly, passed Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul through to the so-called "candidate city" phase.

The IOC will select the 2020 city at a secret vote in September, 2013, in Buenos Aires, a congress marked also by an election to succeed Jacques Rogge, who because of mandatory term limits will be stepping down after 12 years as IOC president.

The contours for the 2020 election are plain:

Will the Eurocentric IOC, after electing Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Winter Games, want to return to far-away Asia for Summer 2020? This is Tokyo's second-straight bid, Madrid's third, Istanbul's fifth overall.

The IOC report released Wednesday that assessed all five would-be 2020 cities called Tokyo's application "very strong." Tokyo typically has graded out terrifically well in such so-called "technical" reports. Now comes the hard part:  the political sell.

"We have to explain to the members our planning … the excitement … [why] it would be the best Olympic Games and a model for the future," asserted Tsunekazu Takeda, the president of Tokyo 2020 and the Japanese Olympic Committee.

The report called Madrid's file "strong." Obviously, Spain is currently beset by economic woes. At the same time, much of what's needed to stage an Olympics is already built; that's the advantage of two prior bids. But can the Madrid 2020 team deliver a winning message?

Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., a key Madrid bid official, said, "The IOC, by coming to southern Europe, would be giving a new generation of youth hope and opportunity, and we can afford to do it  because the infrastructure is already in place."

Can Istanbul run the gamble of bidding for the Games and the 2020 European soccer championships simultaneously? The IOC report, noting that Istanbul's file offers "good potential" but needs to be "refined," stressed that the notion of not only bidding for but actually staging the Olympics and soccer so close together -- they would be held just months apart -- presents "significant risks."

Ugur Erdener, an IOC member as well as president of the world archery federation and the Turkish Olympic committee, said the Games were his country's "first priority," adding, "That is very clear."

The announcement Wednesday follows Rome's February withdrawal from the 2020 race. Some had considered it a favorite. The Italian government said it simply could not provide the financial guarantees the IOC demands.

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was never going to win for 2020 -- Azerbaijan doesn't even have an IOC member -- and so whether they were passed through was always more a matter of passing interest, no more. Make no mistake: a Baku bid is to be taken seriously because they have abundant resource and will. But Baku is for future editions of the Games.

The intrigue in this 2020 election was always Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Then again, the intrigue in the early stage of the 2016 election involved Doha as well.

Four years ago, the IOC cut Doha at this same stage, even though the 2016 technical review had it rated ahead of Rio de Janeiro, which then went on to win.

This time, after a ferocious internal debate at the IOC's executive board session meeting last summer at the time of the world track and field championships in Daegu, South Korea, Doha was allowed to jump into the 2020 race amid the proviso it hold the Games from Oct. 2-18 to avoid the desert heat.

Doha has successfully staged the 2006 Asian Games and, last December, the Arab Games. Doha has won the right to stage, among other significant events, the 2014 swimming world short-course championships and the 2015 men's world handball championships; last spring, it put on the IOC's sport and environment conference.

Overwhelmingly, the summer sports federations said ok to the Doha bid.

The Qataris are adamant about the use of sport as one of the four "pillars" of both a "national vision" plan that aims to achieve concrete goals by 2030 and, as well, to cement Qatar's role as a "leading nation in bringing the world together," the Qatar Olympic Committee's vision statement.

Here in Quebec City, there was more debate.

In Olympic politics -- as in all politics -- perception is as important, if not more so, than reality. It may or may not matter that the issues confronting Doha are on-the-ground real. What matters is that some number of key Olympic stakeholders believe they are real enough.

Is the country big enough for the Olympics? The soccer World Cup is big. But the Olympics are a completely different scale: 28 simultaneous world championships. The financial aspects might pose no difficulty, the IOC report said, but building, coordinating and testing transport, housing, competition and non-competition venues as well as identifying, training and housing a Games workforce, all within seven years "presents a major challenge and risk."

What about the idea of the 2020 Olympics as dress rehearsal for the 2022 World Cup? That's not the way the IOC works. In Brazil, the World Cup is coming before the Olympics -- in 2014, two years before the 2016 Summer Games.

There's this, too, and it's impossible to pretend this isn't part of the dynamic: it wasn't going to happen that Rogge's final months in office were going to be marked by questions at news conferences relating to whatever did or didn't happen in the 2022 FIFA election that gave Qatar that World Cup.

If in Baku they have resource and will, that can be said time and again in Doha. Anyone who has ever been there knows how patient, persistent and committed they are in the emirate to achieving their goals.

"We will continue and we will not give up. Sport is in our DNA," Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, a Doha 2020 vice-chair and secretary-general of the Qatar Olympic Committee, said after the IOC announcement.

Echoed the other Doha 2020 vice chair, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, "We're good learners. We're good listeners. We'll be back."

It all begs the question: when are they ever going to get the chance to least get a vote before all 115 members of the International Olympic Committee? That, rest assured, would be a most interesting vote.

Which brings the underlying issue squarely into focus, doesn't it? Is that really why Doha got cut?

Sport and the environment in 21st-century Qatar

DOHA, Qatar -- The International Olympic Committee gave the Japanese swim federation, among others, an award on the occasion of its "9th world conference on sport and the environment" held here over the past several days. For what? At the Japanese national championships, they used to print out race results on paper. The federation switched to a system that posts all results on its website.  Results are posted within 10 seconds after each race is done.

Sheets of paper saved: 2 million. Trees saved: 150.

When the system is put into practice at some 1,500 competitions across Japan in the near future, some 200 million pieces of paper -- 17,000 trees -- will be saved, federation officials estimate.

Let's be honest. A conference like this doesn't itself save the world.

But an initiative like that from the Japanese swim federation is not insignificant. And a conference like this one does highlight ways in which key sports, environmental and political leaders can find ways to talk to each other. And dialogue is always a good thing.

At the outset, Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations environment program, said from the lectern to International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, "Our partnership with you is one of the great opportunities to give the world hope and courage."

Closing the event, Rogge vowed at a news conference to "continue our strategy of education, regulation and partnership."

The assembly marked the first time the IOC had held its every-two-years environment meeting in the Middle East.

The conference was the first major session since the IOC became a permanent observer to the UN. It thus made for a prelude of sorts to the 2012 Earth Summit to be held in Rio de Janeiro, the 2016 Olympic city.

More than 80 national Olympic committee representatives were on hand, as were delegates from some 20 international sports federations.

For those more interested in IOC politics -- some two dozen IOC members were also here, along with delegates from each of the three cities in the 2018 bid race: Munich; Annecy, France; and Pyeongchang, South Korea.  The Koreans came up just short in bids for the 2014 and 2010 Winter Games and while environmental issues made for a key theme of those bids, Sun-Kyoo Park, a culture, sport and tourism vice-minister said Monday in an interview with a group of reporters, "It is now more important because green growth has become a global issue."

That the conference took place in Doha was of course most intriguing on another level. This is, as the huge banner outside the conference center, the Sheraton hotel, reminded all put it, the new "global sport center." The golf and tennis tours make regular stops here. They're bidding for the 2017 world track and field championships after holding the first-rate world indoor 2010 championships. They put on the hugely successful 2006 Asian Games. They will put on the Pan-Arab Games this December -- an event that deserves wider attention, with 7,000 athletes.

And, of course, Qatar will stage the 2022 soccer World Cup. And it's in connection with the winning bid for that World Cup that they launched one of the most compelling environmental initiatives in recent memory.

Here they cool soccer stadiums to beat the desert heat.

They've known how to do that for a while. The Al Sadd soccer stadium, for instance, uses such technology. The basic premise is amazingly clever: Cool air is forced through pipes and onto the field to cool the pitch itself; at Al Sadd they took the design factor forward an extra step by covering the pipe exhausts with faux soccer balls.

The stands are also cooled by the same technology. Pipes deliver cool air to vents that sit under each seat.

All of that, however, uses standard air-conditioning technologies. So it isn't perhaps super-environmentally friendly.

What they did for the World Cup bid was unveil a new solar-powered system and promise a carbon-neutral event. This is what happens in a forward-thinking place like Qatar, and why an observation from the lectern from the secretary-general of the Qatar Olympic Committee, Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, proved so resonant.

Last Sept. 14, the day that inspectors from soccer's world governing body, FIFA, showed up to see the purpose-built "cooling technology showcase" model stadium, it was 42 degrees celsius -- 106 degrees Fahrenheit -- outside.

Inside the showcase, it was 23 degrees celsius, or 73 Fahrenheit.

The system uses solar energy -- which is abundant here -- to heat water. That hot water is then put into a tank for an "absorption chiller" chemical reaction that cools it way down. Voila -- ready temperature control.

They didn't solve the world's environmental challenges this weekend. But what there is to learn from the Japanese swim federation, and from the Qatari soccer and Olympic delegations, is that a little imagination and ingenuity can go a long way.

"Nobody believes," Sheikh Saoud said in Arabic, speaking through a translator and referring not just to his own nation but to all of humanity and the environmental challenge we all face, "that we can be inactive or complacent."