DOHA, Qatar — There are at least 30 million reasons to explain how Qatar persuaded global track and field’s governing body to hand over its most prized event, the biennial world championships, to a tiny Persian Gulf state with the world’s largest natural gas reserves.
In 2014, Qatar defeated bids from the United States and Spain thanks in part to millions of sponsorships from companies controlled by the Qatari royal family. After its triumph, the victorious bidding committee promised a memorable event.
On that count they have delivered. The sight of female marathon runners being led away on stretchers and wheelchairs after collapsing because of Doha’s extreme heat resembled a battle scene, not the opening day of a major sporting championship.
Things didn’t get much better from there. Night after night, world class athletics played out in front of banks of largely empty seats. The situation improved slightly with the arrival of busloads of migrant workers, brought in to reduce the embarrassment for organizers.
While marathon runners crumbled in the heat, Qatar’s much-vaunted air-cooling technology ensured athletes inside the Khalifa International Stadium did not suffer the same fate. But that raised a different set of questions about the environmental impact of air conditioning an open-air arena in a city where the haze of polluted air already hangs over an island of skyscrapers in the business district.
As the country brings the curtain down Sunday on what has been a largely joyless 10 days of action, the reasons for Qatar’s battle to secure the 17th edition of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ top event remains somewhat mysterious, even if the event has helped the country become better known in some small way, at least to fans of track and field, and give it something akin to bragging rights over its rival emirates. FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, has been put on notice as it prepares to bring the World Cup to Qatar in 2022.
While I.A.A.F officials, led by President Sebastian Coe of Britain, in public at least, tried to defend the decision to stage the event in Doha, athletes were almost uniformly scathing in their assessments. Kevin Mayer of France, the decathlon world-record holder, described the championships as “a disaster.”
The embarrassment was heightened by the hopes placed in the event by the country’s rulers.
“Qatar hosting the world’s third-largest sporting event reflects our readiness to host an exceptional World Cup in 2022,” Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani tweeted shortly after the women’s marathon began last Sunday.
By the time the race had finished some three hours later, about 40 percent of the entrants had withdrawn — overwhelmed by midnight temperatures of about 90 degrees and humidity levels of more than 70 percent. The men’s marathon is scheduled to take place Saturday night under similar conditions.
Doha’s struggle to stage a successful event follows its extraordinary efforts over the past decade to outbid rivals to bring top international sporting competitions to the Gulf. Two of the country’s leading businessmen face corruption charges in France over an effort to secure the 2017 world track and field championships, while the bidding war for the 2022 soccer World Cup has been described as the dirtiest in the tournament’s history. That competition sparked international investigations that helped oust FIFA’s leaders.
Local organizers of the track and field championships have remained largely out of sight the past week. Their communications team at Hill & Knowlton did not respond to a request to facilitate interviews with organizers for this article.
In their place, Coe, the former champion runner and organizer of the 2012 London Olympics, has faced questions about choosing Doha, and been pressed on his views on the value of medalists conducting victory laps around a largely empty stadium despite his attempts to grow interest in athletics beyond its traditional markets.
On Wednesday, Coe attacked the news media, especially the BBC, his home broadcaster, which has been critical of the event.
“It’s really important that we see the long-term development of our sport,” Coe said. “That’s not going to be done because we have challenges over ticketing in a stadium for three days. The problem I’ve got with that is it’s the way our sport is being portrayed by some of the people in that studio.”
Organizers then placed a group of cheering South Asian migrant workers behind the BBC’s booth in the stadium.
On Friday, eight days into the championships, organizers finally had enough fans to remove a tarp that covered a swatch of seats and fill them with people.
Since Qatar secured the World Cup in 2010, scrutiny of it has been higher than at any other point in the country’s history, with little good news to show for it. Officials have battled in vain to present a positive image amid a welter of negative headlines linked to a corrupt bidding process and reports about worker deaths in the country.
Nevertheless, James Lynch, a former British diplomat once based Qatar, said being in the public eye helped Qatar amid growing regional tensions. The strategy is proving a double-edged sword.
“It’s only a generation ago that Kuwait, in something of a comparable position, was invaded and had its oil wells set on fire,” Lynch said. “To shore up that support, Qatar has wanted to build connections with people as well as governments that come and go, and sport has seemed to offer a fantastic route to do that. But sport exposes you to major scrutiny and people feel very strongly about how it is run. I’m not sure the Qatari leadership fully appreciated what they were getting into when they embarked on this strategy.”