Visiting New Zealand Fulbright Scholar Reflects on Doha GOALS Forum

December 23, 2012

Special to CANZPS from New Zealand Fulbright Scholar Dr. Holly Thorpe

It was an honour to be invited to the inaugural Doha GOALS—Gathering of All Leaders in Sport—Forum held at the Aspire Academy in Doha from 10-12 December 2012. Under the high patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hama Bin Khalifa Al-Thani (The Emir of Qatar), the event was produced by Richard Attias and Associates and attended by 2,800 invited participants from 62 countries.

“Qataris are committed to the notion that sport offers a level playing field on which all global citizens are equal participants. Its inclusive nature makes it a befitting tool with which we can tackle and address even our most formidable challenges. … Through joint engagement and dialogue, all participants will come together to create a road map to build initiatives and partnerships for social improvement. The outcomes will undoubtedly carry tremendous social and economic implications for Qatar and for all participating nations. Through investment in sport, we will uncap an unmatched wealth of human potential”.

As a sociologist of sport and a past athlete, I too have a deep passion for sport and belief in its potential to improve individual lives and communities. However, I am also very aware of the various forms of power and politics operating in and through sport such that it can also reproduce inequalities and contribute to the marginalization, discrimination and exploitation of individuals and groups around the world. As I travelled to Doha I hoped the event would provide opportunities for critical discussions of sport such that we could move beyond the overly romantic views of sport touted in some of the promotional materials. Either way, however, I was intrigued by the line-up of presenters and eager to hear from some of the world’s most powerful people in sport, politics and industry.

Speakers included Nicolas Sarkozy (President of the French Republic 2007-2012), His Excellency Ali Bongo Ondimba (President, Gabonese Republic), Olusegun Obasanjo (Former President of Nigeria), Nawal El Moutawakel (Vice President, IOC), Lord Coe (Chairman of the London Organizing Committee), Sepp Blatter (President FIFA), as well as CEOs of a number of major sporting companies and non-profit organizations, and high profile athletes such as Carl Lewis (Olympic Champion Track and Field), Ian Thorpe (Multiple Olympic Champion, Swimming) and Oscar Pistorius (multiple Paralympian).

Doha GOALS featured an incredible line-up of some of the world’s most powerful and acclaimed individuals in sport today, but I couldn’t help but wonder why all of these individuals and organizations were really there? I am so familiar with sport being marginalized as a frivolous activity separate from the ‘real’ hard issues of politics and economics, that it was difficult to believe that all of these individuals were here to simply endorse sport, and if so, why now? For some I assumed a tempting paycheque, for others I expect acknowledgement of the broader socio-economic-political context within which this event was produced. Qatar is a country on the move, with leaders reaching out across national borders and working strategically with transnational corporations to create Doha as a global city worthy of the world’s attention.

During the “Presidential Challenge”, Nicolas Sarkozy explained that he supported this event because he recognizes it as deeply connected to Qatar’s efforts to simultaneously respect cultural traditions and values, and embrace modernity. He was clearly at the event to publically align with His Highness Sheikh Hama Bin Khalifa Al-Thani. He proclaimed that sport is often the “empty chair in international diplomacy”, and there is much to be learned from sport for both domestic and foreign politics. For Sarkozy, “sport must become an important factor of social change—an engine for cultural diplomacy”; “sport should play an important role in international diplomacy—that is why I am here” he explained. Continuing, he used the forum to make broader political statements about the lack of members from African or Arabic countries on the Security Council, and argued for the sharing of mega-sporting events with developing nations. He described the dominance of mega-sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics in North America and Europe as revealing inequalities in global governance. In his own words, “who is entitled to organize major international events?” Such decisions are a “strategic, diplomatic, political choice”, and football can no longer be the “exclusive property of a few western countries”. He publicly endorsed recent decisions to host the Olympics in Beijing, Brazil and Russia, and reminded The Amir that he had supported the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

The winning of the 2022 FIFA World Cup is a huge feat for Qatar. It is the first time an Arabic state has had the opportunity to host the worlds’ second largest sporting event. Yet, I expect events such as this will introduce new challenges to Qataris wanting to simultaneously respect long-held cultural traditions while hosting such events. I anticipate the hosting of such mega-events will likely put new issues and considerations on the agenda for the Qatari elite. For example, how will they manage the desire among tens of thousands of international sporting fans to drink alcohol and/or engage in sports betting at events such as the World Cup? How will they navigate relationships with alcohol sponsors who are typically associated with such events? Moreover, for how much longer will they be able to maintain a patriarchal society that largely frowns upon female participation while at the same time celebrating sport as a “level playing field on which all global citizens are equal participants”? I wonder: Are such contradictions surmountable?

President Sarkozy also challenged the inflexibility of the schedules for such mega-events that make it very difficult to hold events such at the World Cup in June and July (the European off season) when the temperatures will make event organization very difficult indeed. Following this strategic political speech from Sarkozy, FIFA President, Sepp Blatter stepped onto the stage. He briefly acknowledged Sarkozy’s challenges, before quickly moving to wax lyrical about the “wonderful element of sport for connecting people, bringing people together” and offering a sense of hope.

While the presentations of Presidents’ of nations and transnational sporting organizations, world champion athletes, Professors and leaders in the sports industry offered interesting insights into an array of topics, few moved beyond the notion that sport is the panacea for many of the world’s ills. Disappointingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, there was very little space to ask critical questions about the power, politics, corruption, physical and symbolic violence, and exploitation (of athletes and workers), that continue to riddle sport in global and local contexts today, as it has since the Ancient Olympics.

Despite the deafening silences, and the occasional uncomfortable dodging of critical questions by moderators and presenters, there was much that I took from the event.

The Forum was an expertly organized and highly mediated spectacle. Indeed, the Doha GOALS (www.dohagoals.com) website received more than 100,000 unique visitors over the two days. New technologies were utilized throughout the event to record presentations, interviews, and provide participants with ‘a voice’ during panels and taskforces. More than 150 iPads were disseminated during the opening ceremony and during taskforces to allow attendees to enter their thoughts and suggestions. It was not until the conclusion of the event, however, that I witnessed murmuring among some attendees who doubted their voices were really being heard amongst the rhetoric.

As well as panel presentations, and time-out interviews with world-class athletes, the Forum also included four thought-provoking ‘taskforce’ or think-tank sessions on topics such as “How can federations and sporting governing bodies achieve more?” “How do we encourage more girls and women to participate in sport?” “How do we use sports to alleviate social challenges facing children and youth and young adults?” and “How do we improve the balance sheet for sports?” The aim of these taskforce sessions was to identify some key initiatives that would then be actioned in the months following the event. Each panel commenced with a high profile panel of speakers, before breaking into groups to brainstorm problems, and then the following day to work on realistic suggestions for implementation.

To facilitate these taskforce sessions, iPads were distributed to each group to enter their best ideas. The brainstorming sessions were intense flurries of activity, and the ‘data analysis’ of the ideas entered into the iPads took place within minutes. Unfortunately, complex and innovative suggestions were oversimplified, and sometimes lost, in this process. Many attendees were frustrated at the conclusion of the Forum, however, to see very little time allocated to summarizing the key findings from these sessions. I heard some consider whether the ‘initiatives’ were already decided before the commencement of the forum and we were merely playing a part in creating an illusion of a democratic decision-making process in sport. A wonderful part of these taskforce sessions, however, was that they created opportunities for conversations with individuals from across the world who are actively involved in the sports industry at all levels, ranging from grassroots non-profit sport for development programs in Cambodia and Brazil, to founders and presidents of international sporting for-profit and non-profit organizations.

The Forum was a carefully choreographed spectacle, with various sporting activities and events interspersed throughout the two days. In particular, as part of the concluding ceremony Oscar Pistorius raced against an Arabic stallion in an event titled “Run like the Wind”. According to Pistorius, the event was designed to “show people that those with disabilities have the potential to do great things”. I would argue that Pistorius’ performances at the 2012 Olympics did this better than any horse race possibly could.

Some attendees (including myself) and others around the world questioned the ethics behind this event. While clearly an entertaining spectacle for the Qatari elite and their friends, it is important to consider whether such an event is respectful of Pistorius as an individual and an athlete, or whether it merely reduces him to (another) paid performer for the wealthy. Pistorius surely had a choice in the matter, and during his presentations at the forum he came across as an incredibly articulate, thoughtful and socially conscious athlete. Yet I expect the financial incentive to race was such that he was willing to (temporarily) put aside any philosophical or moral concerns. Animal rights groups have also expressed concerns about the “barbaric” whipping of the horse that failed to start on cue.

It is worth noting that such spectacles are not new. You may recall that Jesse Owens raced against a horse in Cuba in 1948; accepting payment for doing so ultimately compromised his amateur status and he later described the race as a dehumanizing experience. As with Owens, Pistorius beat the stallion in the 200-meter dash on a specially created track. This event ran counter to discussions during the forum about the need to respect athletes as human beings rather than merely passive cogs in the global, financial juggernaut that is sport in the 21st century. That this event was sponsored by Sasol, a transnational energy and chemical company, and with the support of the Qatar Paralympic and Olympic Committees, says much about the development of sport in Qatar.

Unfortunately, despite the calibre of attendees, the forum struggled to move beyond the simple idea that sport is a panacea for societies problems. There was very little space to critically discuss some of the real problems inherent in sport today. With some of the leaders of the IOC, FIFA and other transnational corporations sitting on the stage and in the taskforce sessions, it was disappointing that there was so little opportunity to pose questions regarding the power and politics inherent in these organizations as revealed by an array of my esteemed peers. Sociologists and historians of sport, such as Professors Alan Tomlinson, John Sugden, Douglas Booth, and Helen Lensky, have offered an array of books and scholarly critiques of such organizations in books such as National Identity and Global Sports Events: Culture, Politics and Spectacle in the Olympics and the Football World Cup (Tomlinson & Young, 2006), Watching the Olympics: Politics, Power and Representation (Sugden & Tomlinson, 2011), and Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics and Activism (Lenskj, 2000). Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, none of these scholars were in attendance. Moreover, the advisory committee of supposedly the “40 greatest thinkers in sport” today included just one academic. It is only when we can examine the power for sport to create positive change, while simultaneously addressing the major inequalities, injustices, and forms of marginalization and exploitation that continue to run deep through the organizations that control and produce sport today, that we will be able to move toward real change. In this sense, the event failed to be more than a rallying cry for sports, and a publicity event for a new Qatar.

It would be remiss not to mention the world-class facilities at the Aspire Center, and the wonderful hospitality offered throughout the event. Moreover, the forum offered marvellous opportunities to meet a wide array of passionate and powerful individuals working in the sports media, sporting companies and organizations, and non-profit organizations. While the ‘hard’ legacy of the event will not be known for some time, I expect the ‘soft’ legacy, that is the global networks established during the Doha GOALS forum, will certainly facilitate the efforts of those trying to improve the lives of individuals and communities around the world.

To read this document with photos, see www.hollythorpe.com/news