THE BLOG
17/11/2011 04:41 GMT | Updated 16/01/2012 05:12 GMT

The Head Said London - but the Heart Went for Doha

As a sports fan I was delighted London won the right to host the 2017 World Athletics Championships. Another major athletics event so soon after the Olympics, another chance to use the impressive infrastructure, another opportunity to cement and build on the legacy. What's not to like?

Given the World Cup 2018 bidding fiasco, when it was widely acknowledged that England presented the best technical bid yet secured just one vote other than its own, it also seemed deserved.

Particularly as its main rival for 2017 was such a notable beneficiary then. To general astonishment Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup hosting right, despite having little football pedigree and a far from ideal climate.

FIFA's desire to spread the reach of the game is commendable, but serious questions were being asked about the voting system way before the result was announced, let alone afterwards.

And yes, England was competing for a different tournament, but the bidding took place simultaneously and was therefore seen to be directly linked. So when the 2017 result was revealed in Monaco last Friday you could see why "London reverses trends to beat Qatari captial Doha" became the subsequent dominant narrative.

Yet a few days have passed and the thorny issue of justice has been nagging away at me. There were clearly legitimate reasons for London's first successful World Championships bid (by 16 votes to 10), such as venues already built and likely to be full to capacity, the city's cultural diversity, a late July date and therefore better sponsorship returns. Lord Coe is a persuasive man, and the late matching of the Qatar prize money also helped.

But look at the bigger picture.

Despite its (fair) image as a stable Gulf state with high literacy levels and good education, Qatar nevertheless has its share of accusations of serious human rights abuses. Following the World Cup award numerous reports appeared to highlight the awful exploitation of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, migrant workers. Predominantly unskilled and semi-skilled from south Asia in search of a slightly better life, this group makes up around two-thirds of the country's population.

The conditions of many of them are akin to modern day slaves. They rack up heavy debts to travel, their passports are confiscated on arrival, and their contracts changed shortly afterwards. With no trade unions, each worker is dependent on a sponsorship system with one employer, a practice called kafala.

"The results are depressingly familiar: unpaid wages, inhumane living conditions, unsafe working conditions and suicides," wrote Nicholas McGeehan, director of Mafiwasta, an organisation for workers' rights in the United Arab Emirates.

These are the people who will be building the stadia for 2022. And this is one of the richest countries in the world.

Such an environment exists across the region. In the wake of the successful Qatari World Cup bid last winter the International Labour Organisation urged Gulf countries to protect millions of migrant workers by reforming the kafala sponsorship system and introducing a minimum wage.

So here's the point: could another major tournament half way between now and the 2022 World Cup have led to a ramping up of international pressure and increased the chances of reform in a region that so desperately needs it?

You have to think it would. Even though they're not designed for it, major sporting events like this offer an almost unparalleled opportunity to raise awareness of human rights.

It shouldn't be the basis on which to award a country the privilege of hosting an event like the World Athletics Championships. But neither has it been the basis to prevent such an award.

Horrible exploitation exists. Given the potential for change, suddenly my support for London seems a bit hollow.