Hosting a global sporting event can do wonders for a country’s image, proving it’s a sophisticated, advanced nation able to meet demanding international standards and put on a good show. Think of China hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the World Cup in South Africa this year.
But if the organizers are floundering just weeks before an event starts and negative publicity starts kicking in, a country’s reputation can be dragged through the gutter. India’s mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in New Delhi last month is such a case.
Qatar, which is bidding for the 2020 Olympics and the 2022 World Cup, would do well to learn from India’s mistakes if it is not to fall into the same trap.
Whether a country likes it or not, dirty laundry will be aired as every minute detail of the event falls under the microscope of the global media.
India spent some $9 billion on the CWG. Stories abound in the press about corruption, the working conditions of the 100,000 construction workers, the estimated 1,000 work-related deaths, and the 400,000 Indians that had their homes demolished to make space for the venues.
Some of India’s largest construction companies have also had their names tarnished for flouting numerous work-related laws, among them the United Arab Emirates-India joint venture Emaar MGF. At the end of October India ordered the confiscation of the companies’ $41.3 million bank guarantee and brought legal action after “irregularities” and deficiencies were found in the CWG village.
Many Indians are embarrassed by the way the CWG has been handled, and rightfully so. A country cannot just paste over the cracks and hope no one notices. Ironically, India knows this only too well as it struggles to promote itself as an attractive investment and tourist destination. After all, India has spent millions of dollars on the very professionally done “Incredible India” ad campaign, but your potential tourist is invariably put off by the stereotype image of poverty and bad hygiene. It is perhaps no surprise then that India only receives a paltry 5 million foreign tourists a year; Egypt by comparison gets 13 million.
Indeed, security and hygiene were major concerns for CWG athletes, with several stars pulling out early and more threatening to do so in the week up to the event with facilities unfinished, a footbridge collapsing and a cobra found in an athlete’s room.
Things did not go much better once the event started. On the second day there was a bomb scare hoax and then the infamous Delhi belly started setting in, particularly among swimmers, attributed to pools’ dubious water quality. English sprinter Mark Lewis-Francis chose not to bite on his (silver) medal on the podium, as is customary. “I don’t really want to bite it because I don’t want to get Delhi belly,” he told reporters.
India has not exactly helped itself either when trying to justify the sub-standard facilities at the Athletes’ Village, with an off-the-cuff remark by Organizing Committee General Secretary Lalit Bhanot causing much mirth: “Everyone has a different standard of hygiene. The rooms of the Games Village may be clean according to you and me, but they [the West] have some different standard of cleanliness.”
If Qatar gets either bid for the world’s biggest sporting events, it will be a colossal undertaking for Doha. Qatar certainly has oodles of cash to play with and could pull off a great show if the planning is right. Despite early doubts, the Gulf state pulled off the Doha Asian Games in 2006.
The Asian Games were very much a trial run for something bigger, and Qatar has embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign to convince the world it has what it takes. The Middle East has never hosted an event of such global proportions, which lends weight to Qatar’s bid. Where else in the region could pull this off, particularly taking into account security concerns? Only the UAE springs to mind; Bahrain has enough on its plate with Formula 1. If it learns from India’s mistakes, Qatar may just have a sporting chance.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East
correspondent for International News Services