By Dan Palmer
Bidding races for major Games no longer capture the public’s attention like they once did.
In days gone by, at least a handful of the world’s most famous cities would place themselves on the start line for the right to host the Summer Olympics.
With perilous financial situations becoming the norm and increasing levels of public scepticism, those days seem to be gone.
Politicians, probably with one eye on angry rhetoric on social media, are reluctant to throw their hats into the ring and the global pandemic will have done nothing to change this stance.
During the race for the 2024 Olympics, the contenders dropped one-by-one like flies in a blizzard of referendums and political opposition, until just two remained.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach handed Paris the Games on a plate, with Los Angeles given the rights to 2028 to solve what may have become a future problem.
It was a far cry from the interesting battles for Games eventually won by the likes of Barcelona and London, but with the IOC also overseeing a pair of low-profile races for the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics, this is a situation sport may have to get used to.
With this in mind, it was exciting to receive confirmation of a bidding race which does come coupled with more than its fair share of intrigue.
The contest for the 2030 Asian Games has just two bidders, but they are the fierce regional rivals Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
This is a real grudge match for the second biggest multi-sport Games on Earth, and it could also be a sign of things to come with regards to sport’s other huge events.
It was April when the respective Qatari and Saudi capitals of Doha and Riyadh confirmed their interest for 2030, the height of COVID-19 lockdown when much of the world seemed to be falling apart.
A bid for a major Games at this time from a western country would have been unthinkable, and even suggesting it would probably be political suicide.
This is clearly not a problem for the mega-rich Middle Eastern neighbours which enjoy vast reserves of oil and natural gas.
Both countries also operate controversial authoritative regimes – more of which later – so the likelihood of the public kicking up a fuss is essentially zero.
The ruling classes are therefore free to bid for any huge sports event they wish for, and it has become increasingly clear that they wish for a lot.
Welcoming the world for sporting extravaganzas is seen in both countries as a way to improve their image amid various political and human rights accusations.
Many have dubbed this practice as “sportswashing” – an attempt to wipe away the stain of unwelcome criticism.
But with Qatar and Saudi Arabia there is the extra spice of the pair’s deteriorated diplomatic relations which will encourage both to bid.
If one nation is awarded a mega-event then it is a political blow to the other, so can we expect further grudge matches down the line?
In July, when coronavirus was still rampant, Qatar put itself forward for the 2032 Summer Olympics.
Will Saudi Arabia eventually join them? It would not be a surprise, and with western bidders likely to be few and far between the IOC, and other sporting bodies, could easily face a situation where wealthy Middle Eastern nations are their only options.
“With these two bids for the 2030 Asian Games we now have stability and continuity in our sports movement for the next decade,” said Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al-Sabah, the Olympic Council of Asia President.
“This will allow our National Olympic Committees, our administrators and, above all, our athletes to make solid plans for the future in the short term, medium term and long term.
“It puts us in an envious position in terms of our sports calendar and highlights again that Asia is a major partner in the global Olympic movement.”
Sheikh Ahmad is a man who will be well aware of the clout both Qatar and Saudi Arabia possess.
The 2030 race, interestingly, is a departure from the OCA’s recent practice of making known its preferred host city and electing it without a bidding process.
In 2015, Sheikh Ahmad said the “Asian tradition” was to favour one pre-meditated choice over an election.
Perhaps, with two heavyweight contenders in the ring, the OCA was unable to select just one for 2030 and is instead letting them slug it out.
It is a strategy which keeps two rich bidders in the game but the risk of causing offence to the loser seems high. You would not be surprised if the defeated party walks away with at least some sort of concession in their back pocket.
The sporting portfolios of both countries are already impressive, with Qatar’s future staging of the 2022 FIFA World Cup the most high-profile.
There was bewilderment when the small nation was awarded football’s biggest prize in 2010, with corruption allegations aplenty following.
Sports have been heading to Doha by the dozen, however, with the World Athletics Championships taking place there last year. Shortly afterwards the inaugural ANOC World Beach Games, which Qatar stepped in to host at the 11th hour after problems in San Diego, went ahead.
Doha has also held the Asian Games before, in 2006, but with progress in Qatar so swift that already seems like a lifetime ago.
Qatar Sports Investments, an arm of the state’s sovereign wealth fund the Qatar Investment Authority, wants “rapid growth” in the country and has pledged to make the nation a sporting “centre of excellence”.
“The Qatar Olympic Committee, with the total support of the Qatar Government, is fully committed to bidding to host the 21st Asian Games,” said QOC President HE Sheikh Joaan Bin Hamad Al-Thani.
“We had the honour of hosting the Asian Games in 2006 and we believe it is time to bid again and welcome Asia back to our country.
“The Doha of today is very different to the Doha of 2006 and the Doha of 2030 will be even more advanced.
“Athletes, NOCs, fans and all stakeholders can be assured of the very highest standards.”
Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are among the bidders for football’s 2027 Asian Cup, alongside India, Iran and Uzbekistan, so will be locking horns for that competition, too.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in sport can be viewed as being relatively recent as, before September 2019, it was practically impossible for most people to visit the Kingdom.
A new online visa system which opened the borders to residents of 49 countries changed all that, with sport at the forefront of this newly-found openness.
“Saudi Vision 2030”, the long-term blueprint for the future of the country, states: “We aspire to excel in sport and be among the leaders in selected sports regionally and globally.”
Sporting events have begun to roll in, including the Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr heavyweight boxing showdown in December.
Football officials in European superpowers Italy and Spain have been convinced to hold competitive matches there, and it seems that no matter the sport, Saudi Arabia wants to host it.
The crown jewels of the Olympics and FIFA World Cup will certainly be on their radar with the Asian Games, which they have never hosted before, perhaps a planned precursor to that.
Saudi Arabia is even planning to build NEOM, a sci-fi sounding “futuristic mega-city” where they hope the best athletes in the world will live, train and compete.
“Bidding for the Asian Games in 2030 is part of our new strategy and is fully aligned with the Kingdom Vision 2030,” said Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, the President of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.
“I have full trust that the Riyadh 2030 bid will be a very powerful demonstration of our vision that aims to bring Asia together to deliver the best Asian Games ever in 2030 in Riyadh.
“By the year 2030, Riyadh will be among the most attractive cities in the world, the impact of sport will be seen in the whole society and our athletes will be ready to perform at their best and be part of an exciting journey of transformation that ought to be shared.”
There are clear similarities between the wealth and ambitions of the two nations but in recent years there has been no room for cordial ties.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia led an international blockade of Qatar after accusing their miniature neighbour of supporting terrorism.
The financers of terror groups were operating in Qatari territory, it was claimed, while the powerful Al Jazeera television network, owned by the Government in Doha, was another source of contention.
Qatar has denied aiding militant groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL, with Saudi Arabia also alleging growing links between Doha and Iran, another of its fierce regional rivals.
Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim state, was left furious when Qatar paid a reported $700 million to Iranian-backed Shi’a militias in Iraq, to secure the release of 26 hostages which included members of Doha’s Royal Family.
There was also high drama when quotes purportedly from the Emir of Qatar were published by the official state news agency, where he appeared to praise both Iran and Israel.
The quotes were quickly denied by Doha, which insisted that the website had been hacked.
These were key trigger-events before the blockade, which led to the closure of the Saudi-Qatari border.
Every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council ordered its residents to leave Qatar, and the Saudis are even said to have driven 12,000 camels and sheep out of its territory.
To outsiders, some elements of the dispute may come across as petty. Saudi airspace was closed off to Qatar Airways flights, forcing planes into inconvenient detours.
When I flew from Amman in Jordan to Doha for the World Beach Games, the pilot first took us out east through Iraq before dipping down over Kuwait and into Qatar.
Flying straight over Saudi Arabia would have been far simpler but, during the blockade, both countries seem intent on making life difficult for each other.
In 2018, reports emerged that Saudi officials were planning to build a huge canal along the entirety of its border with Qatar, which would turn its rival into an island.
A small part of Saudi territory on the island would be used as a place to dump nuclear waste, it was claimed.
The border, through which 40 per cent of Qatar’s food used to enter, is now sealed off and has been described as a “ghost town”.
Qatar’s natural resources and access to the sea meant it had the ability to survive many of the restrictions, although there was still a mad rush to the shops when the blockade was announced.
Another dispute involves BeIN Sports, the Qatari broadcaster which has rights for many major sporting events including all of the top European football leagues.
The network has been banned in Saudi Arabia, reportedly due to “monopolistic practices”.
Riyadh is claimed to support the pirate station BeoutQ, which is alleged to illegally air content from BeIN Sports for which it does not have permission.
BeIN Sports urged England’s Premier League, one of its partners, to block the takeover from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund for Newcastle United, before this deal eventually collapsed.
The Saudis will likely be back in the market for a major football club, particularly as QSI owns French giants Paris Saint-Germain.
Despite their problems with each other, it may well be the pair’s issues with the wider world which cause Doha and Riyadh the biggest headaches.
Amnesty International has already called on the OCA to consider human rights in the 2030 Asian Games race.
“The Asian Games shouldn’t become a vehicle for states to ‘sportswash’ their reputations, instead they should be an opportunity for human rights to be properly bolstered and defended in hosting countries,” said Stephen Cockburn, the organisation’s head of economic and social justice.
“There are numerous important issues, including whether women and LGTBI fans and contestants will be able to freely participate.”
Qatar has faced particular criticism for the treatment of migrant workers at World Cup sites, with a Human Rights Watch report in August claiming abuses remain “persistent and widespread”.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has been described as “diabolical” with the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s Consulate in Istanbul still fresh in the memory.
The continued use of beheadings, an alleged crackdown on campaigners and the treatment of women, who are described as being “shackled” to men, are other issues which will not go away.
Both countries will claim, no doubt, that they are making progress but they will find that the pressure will ramp up every time a major sporting carnival rolls into town.
Hosting a mega-event shines the spotlight on that country, and calls for change will only get louder if more and more sports arrive.
Large swathes of empty seats at Doha’s World Athletics Championships will also be a concern, with athletes dubious that the appetite for top sport really exists in these hot desert lands.
It all means there are uncomfortable questions ahead for sports organisations which might increasingly see countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia as their safest and only options.
The OCA have already taken the plunge, with their decision due this year. One day soon it might be the IOC in a similar position.