From Russia with Love

Owen Evans asks the Paralympic Movement how it is planning on using lessons learned in Sochi to break down cultural barriers in the Middle East at the inaugural IPC World Championships in Doha.

With the greatest respect to the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) World Powerlifting Championships that have been held in Dubai twice, the Middle East has yet to prove itself as an established host of Paralympic sport.

That all changes next month when the IPC’s flagship event outside of the quadrennial Games, the Athletics World Championships, takes place in Doha, Qatar. The first time the event has taken place in the Middle East.

In taking its biennial event to a new market, the IPC has been faced with similar challenges in breaking down cultural barriers as when Sochi was awarded the 2014 winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

IPC president Sir Philip Craven often tells the story that there is a letter on the wall of his headquarters in Bonn, Germany, from a Soviet official declining the opportunity to host the 1980 Paralympics as “there are no invalids in our country”.

We will be showing the Middle East disability sport at the highest level, and that it is something you do not hide in the cupboard

However, the Paralympics in Russia last year proved to be a success from both commercial and infrastructural perspectives, and now the IPC are planning on using lessons learned educating their Russian hosts as part of the process of going into the Middle East.

“There are two big challenges for the area,” Ryan Montgomery, head of IPC Athletics, told SportBusiness International. “To begin with, there will be close to 50-per-cent female participation [in the event], which is obviously a big statement in the region. The other thing is the fact we will be showing them disability sport at the highest level, and that it is something you do not hide in the cupboard, which was the same issue with Russia.

“That’s something we really want to emphasise in Qatar and the Gulf Corporation Council countries. Part of the legacy of these championships is not too dissimilar to Sochi if I’m honest, we want to use the event to make people in the region aware of disabled people in society and how they can achieve sporting excellence when the barriers are minimal.”

Montgomery said he has been out to Doha on multiple occasions in the lead up to the event next month, where the government has led initiatives to improve accessibility measures and the mandatory increase in accessible hotels in Qatar.

“I think accessibility is always the challenge with new markets,” he added. “We all know the history of Qatar and its ability to run championships in terms of their willingness.

“Outside Doha’s hotels and venues is where the real challenge will lie with this event, and whether there will be enough accessible buses able to take people to and from the venues. It’s going to be a tight deadline, but we should have enough time.”

All Inclusive

Dahlan Al Hamad, president of the Qatar Athletics Federation (QAF) and vice-president of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), said he hoped the World Championships would be an opportunity to show the rest of the world that there had been a cultural shift towards embracing Paralympic sport in the Middle East.

“The IPC athletics is a new event for us, but we are happy to have it and anxious for it to go well,” he told SportBusiness International. “This is going to be big for us as, first of all, it is going to be qualification for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, and it is also going to be hosted in the same venue as our Diamond League events.”

Held from October 21-31, the competition will feature around 1,300 athletes from 90 countries and will take place in the 12,000-capacity Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium – home of the Qatar Sports Club football team.

The inclusive strategy from Qatar is the latest step of a country ramping up its event-hosting strategy, with the IAAF World Championships taking place in 2019, and Fifa’s World Cup taking place three years later.

“The Paralympic movement is something that our country is really prioritising to show that disabled people are part of our society and belong to us,” said Al Hamad.

The QAF head added a number of government initiatives have been rolled out to improve infrastructural facilities for not just people coming to participate in the IPC World Championships, but also the disabled people living in Qatar.

“We want to show these participants that we are ready to fight and we want to stand by them. This event will be good for the people of the Middle East and it will be the same for the Athletics World Championships in 2019, when Doha will be the first Mena (Middle East and north Africa) host of that event as well.”

Stepping Stone

The hosting of these events has inevitably sparked suggestions that the Emirate state could be tempted to bid for the 2024 summer Olympics, following unsuccessful attempts in the 2020 and 2016 bid races. However, Montgomery believes this is “unlikely” and Al Hamad is also hesitant about potential plans to commit to the 2024 race.

“I think the Olympics is a dream for everyone. My concern is to make the 2019 World Championships successful and show we can handle something like this,” he said. “These decisions to bid or not to bid for an Olympic Games are not decided by me.

“If and when the government is ready to go forward [with an Olympic bid], I will be the first to put myself forward and offer support.”

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