The focus of the sporting world shifts to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar following the Tokyo Olympics, with lingering questions over Covid safety and human rights.
Unlike the Games, which played out to a backdrop of surging case numbers in Tokyo and without spectators to limit viral transmission, organisers of the November 18-December 21, 2022, football tournament insist it will be played in full stadiums.
Qatar 2022 might be the first truly global sporting event with fans since coronavirus emerged at the start of 2020, if the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics goes ahead behind closed doors as an International Olympic Committee official has suggested.
Such is the commitment of the tiny, super-wealthy host emirate to stage a “normal” tournament that Doha has pledged to vaccinate travelling fans from countries where the rollout of jabs has been slower.
“Whatever happens I expect we’ll have fans, including foreigners, in the stadiums,” said Danyel Reiche, an associate professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.
“Qatar was a pioneer in developing concepts for sports during the pandemic and has staged many events.”
Qatar, the first Middle Eastern host of the World Cup, was, along with Rwanda, an Olympics vaccine hub for athletes heading to Tokyo. It also hosted the refugee team.
– Vaccines for fans –
Qatar has pledged to obtain one million doses of Covid vaccine for unvaccinated fans travelling to the Arabian desert peninsula country.
Details of its tournament jab programme have yet to be published, though 2022 organisers went to Tokyo to observe the precautions taken during the Games.
“Tokyo has been a qualified success with… little overall dissent amongst those present about the restrictions in place,” said Simon Chadwick, director of the Eurasian sports centre at France’s Emlyon Business School.
“Qatar would do well to follow and fine-tune the processes and procedures that have been in place during the Olympics. The big difference of course is the presence of spectators.”
With less than 16 months left, the Gulf state is speckled with construction sites and roadworks.
The country’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, has acknowledged that the pandemic had caused “a delay” to some infrastructure projects “but it was a very limited delay”.
“Preparations… will all be complete in the coming months,” he said of the tournament which officials hope will contribute around $20 billion to Qatar’s economy.
Three of the eight World Cup stadiums, all airconditioned despite the tournament having been moved to the cooler winter months, are still under construction.
Qatar’s multi-billion-dollar football infrastructure, much of it still untested, will undergo a trial when it hosts the Arab Cup from November 30 to December 18.
As well as promises that infrastructure will be ready for the tournament, Qatar has repeatedly given assurances on its human and labour rights record.
In May, secret police arrested a Kenyan security guard who had published articles on the plight of migrant workers in the country which is dependent on expat labour.
He was charged with receiving money from a foreign agent prompting an outcry from rights groups.
While campaigners have accused employers of exploitation, Qatar insists it has done more than any country in the region to improve the welfare of workers.
“The speed of change will not be enough to convince some critics,” said Chadwick.
“There is (also) considerable dissent amongst conservatives within the Qatari government and society that the country has already been forced to change too much.”
– Rights and wrongs –
In February, Qatar fiercely denied reports in Britain’s Guardian newspaper of excessive worker fatalities, insisting the figure was unreliable but refusing to publish the actual number.
Some fans and commentators fear that Doha may not offer visitors the same experience as past tournaments.
“I’ve been to many DJs on beaches with thousands of people in Doha already in 2005 and 2006,” said 2022 ambassador and former Netherlands international Ronald De Boer, who lived in Doha for five years.
“Doha will be ready for this amount of fans, they can really hold big events. And don’t worry that you can’t drink a beer.”
While beer will be available in fan zones, restaurants and hotels, it is likely that ordinary ticket-holders will be unable to drink inside stadiums, with alcohol confined to outside areas.
A decision has yet to be made officially.
Those in premium hospitality suites will however be able to access fully-stocked bars within sight of the pitch.