The biggest story in sport this week was not really a story about sport. At least, not on the surface.
It’s one you won’t have seen analysed in the BBC studio, and nor is it one you’ll have heard many opinions on from the world’s best athletes or soccer players.
Midway through the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, a little over three years out from the Fifa World Cup, an investigation by The Guardian revealed that hundreds of migrant workers are continuing to die of heat stress every year in Qatar.
This, despite the eyes of the sporting world being firmly fixed on the Gulf nation, which is one of the richest per-capita states in the world. Working up to 10 hours a day in temperatures that soar well into the 40s, hordes of workers – mostly young men between 25 and 35 – are dying each summer, with Qatari authorities attributing the majority to cardiovascular causes or “natural death”.
Research published in the Cardiology Journal concluded that many of the deaths were likely caused by heatstroke, with 1,300 Nepali workers killed between 2009 and 2017. What does all this have to do with sport? Well, everything.
Of the 2.6 million people living in Qatar, 1.9 million are migrant workers, many of them young men from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan who came here to build the stadiums and surrounding infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.
Amid all the superb sport and stirring performances over the past week, it’s hard to overlook the tragic cost of an issue the Qatari government would much rather stays hidden.
There are myriad reasons to question Qatar’s pursuit of major sporting events, but this above all is the chief concern. No sport is worth dying for, yet that’s the fate inflicted upon droves of workers who will never get to experience the extravagant luxury of the air-conditioned stadiums they helped build.
Set alongside such tragedy, complaints from fans and athletes in Doha about empty stadiums and excessive heat seemed trivial, but those voices are still worth hearing. Qatar, after all, is hell-bent on attracting as many major events as it can get over the next decade, announcing during the week it is considering bidding for the 2030 Asian Games.
But where are the fans? It was a question asked many times as attendance figures fluctuated from respectable to embarrassing, the atmosphere at times raucous but often non-existent. The images beamed around the world last Sunday showed a stadium with only a couple of thousand people in it when the women’s 100m final took place, but given many of those in attendance were migrant workers from East Africa – most of whom had to wake at dawn for work – it’s no wonder many left before the showpiece race took place at 11:20pm.
Less circulated were images of the nights the stands were close to capacity, when Kenyans and Ethiopians created a superb atmosphere for the distance races. But if anything that fuelled the desire not to see another athletics championships come here, but to make its way to East Africa, where public interest is undeniable.
But athletics, like other sports, is caught in a catch-22. To grow a sport outside of traditional territories, it’s necessary to get out of Europe and come to places like Doha.
This was the first time the World Championships were hosted in the Middle East and though the IAAF shouldered a storm of criticism, it was worth noting the decision was made under a previous regime in 2014.
Coming here was one of the last remnants of Lamine Diack’s dire reign as IAAF President, a term that came to an end in 2015 when Sebastian Coe took over. Diack continues to await trial in France on charges of corruption and money laundering and on the eve of the championships, The Guardian’s Sean Ingle revealed French judges are investigating a proposed $4.5m payment from Doha organisers to an off-shore company in Singapore with links to Diack’s son, Papa Massata.
The World Cup is on equally shaky footing when it comes to Qatar’s successful bid, with allegations Qatar’s state-run broadcaster Al Jazeera offered Fifa a secret $100m TV deal three weeks before it awarded Qatar the tournament.
But beyond any corruption, beyond the droves of deaths among migrant workers, there are other reasons for sport to say no to Doha.
Proof was available at the women’s marathon last weekend. Setting off at midnight due to the vicious combination of heat (32.7 degrees) and humidity (73%), just over 40 percent of the field dropped out. These, remember, were some of the world’s best distance runners, women whose capacity to suffer is in a different realm to ordinary athletes.
“The humidity kills you,” said Belarus’s Volha Mazuronak, who finished fifth. “There is nothing to breathe. French 50km race walk star Yohann Diniz said he was “extremely upset” about being forced to compete in such conditions.
“If we were in the stadium we would have normal conditions but outside they have placed us in a furnace.”
Athletes had few complaints inside the stadium with the temperature kept in the low-20s through hundreds of trackside vents, but US steeplechase Allie Ostrander described training runs in Doha as “like you’re submerged underwater, but the water is boiling and you’re kind of halfway cooked.”
Thomas Barr said bringing the championships here was “a pretty weird call” and admitted it didn’t feel like a World Championships. “You walk out on to the track (at most championships) and it’s all jaw-dropping when you see a massive crowd, but today felt like a preliminary round where you’re like, let’s just get through this. It’s been a strange World Championships. I don’t know if it’s an area that follows the sport.”
The conundrum is a tricky one. Coming here boosts the bank balance for any sporting organisation, and they’ll all argue there’s no better way to recruit new fans, but by doing so they risk the embarrassment of empty stadiums until such an interest is cultivated.
While fans visiting stadiums during the 2022 World Cup will be quite comfortable – temperatures then are in the high 20s and low 30s – the necessary disruption to a sport’s usual calendar is a price not worth paying.
Athletics had to postpone its championships by two months to make it slightly less vicious for spectators and athletes, while soccer will back up five months, the World Cup taking place from late November to mid-December, wreaking havoc with domestic leagues around the world.
Athletics fans this week who found themselves wanting a beer were forced to shell out €14 a pint in one of the few hotel bars here with a licence, but plans are in place to ensure subsidised alcohol supplies during the World Cup.
The fan experience should be a whole lot better then than it was this week, and yet it’s hard to see the next World Cup being anyway on a par with what came before.
In the end, though, such worries are ultimately frivolous. Whether we like it or not, Qatar is hurtling head-first into hosting the biggest sporting party there is.
But success in the future will remain haunted by Qatar’s failures in the past, its unforgivable failures in the present.