Qatar keeps on track

It will never turn a profit, but Qatar’s Aspire sports programme will pay the Gulf state back in ways other than cash, says its director Dr. Thomas Flock. Richard Agnew reports.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  December 4, 2005

Qatar keeps on track|~|56-Dome-Interior-21_-200.jpg|~|IMPRESSIVE: Qatar has several new sporting facilities to host the Asian Games next December. |~|FOR A COUNTRY MANY SPORTS stars probably haven’t heard of, Qatar has proved adept at attracting big international names. The petrodollars flowing into the emirate have helped persuade several footballing greats to compete there, including Holland's de Boer brothers, Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta and Brazil's Romario. In 2003, an investment reported to be more than US$1 million also paid off when Kenya-born Saif Saeed Shaheen won the 3000-metre steeplechase for Qatar at the World Athletics Championships in Paris. By the time London holds the Olympics in seven years, however, Qatar’s aim is to have a champion who was born in the emirate, rather than bought by it. “We are sure we will have quite a few contestants in 2012 and with a bit of luck we might also gain one or other of the medals,” says Dr. Thomas Flock, director of Aspire — a huge facility set up near Doha to develop Qatar’s future sportsmen and women. The Qatari government has certainly not been afraid of splashing out to achieve its sporting goals, and Aspire took a big chunk of that budget. Officially opened last month, it is part of a US$1 billion development which will host the Asian Games in December next year, and possibly a full international event some time after that. The Gulf state, understandably, doesn’t want the money it has spent on the event to leave with the athletes. “It’s very wise to have a strategy at hand for the follow-up to the Asian Games,” says Flock. “In many other countries which have hosted an Olympic Games, for example, they set up everything and afterwards it goes to pieces. There is no after-use. So we want to spend around US$1 billion, do it properly and then have a perfect organisation afterwards.” The academy’s facilities include several hi-tech laboratories focusing on different aspects of sports science; eight football pitches; an Olympic-size swimming pool; athletics track; diving pool; gymnastics hall; multi-sports hall; table-tennis arena and squash courts. Most are housed in the world’s largest indoor sports dome, and are served by their very own power station. Flock says he “doesn’t really know” how much it all cost, but is sure Aspire will never make it all back. “We’ll never be able to run on a profit or even get our budget through revenues. No chance,” he says. “We have one very important revenue stream, which is the government. It is, and will always be, the vast majority of our resources and budget.” As it doesn’t charge fees to its students, Aspire’s only non-government cash comes from partnerships and sponsorships — the first of which it agreed recently with the country’s flag carrier, Qatar Airways. Although Flock says it is currently drawing up a strategy to attract other firms, he says the state will always support at least 85% of the centre’s running costs. The indirect benefits to the country could be huge, however — and not just the PR it gains whenever an Aspire-trained athlete wins a gold medal or reaches a World Cup. “It’s the same all over the world — any high-performance institute is subsidised by the government,” says Flock. “Our revenue will not be financial — it will be in other areas, such as sports success and awareness about the benefits of sport for health; and then the indirect revenue saving on expenses for health matters.” Aspire’s potential to cut health costs could be significant, as nearly half of Qatar’s population is said to be overweight or obese. “We have a very small population — around 200,000 — and 20% have diabetes,” says Flock. He adds: “If we continue like that, there might not be a lot of Qataris left. So we had better work to improve [their] health and one of the most important ways to do that is to be physically active. We are trying to induce that by educating, but also by letting [people] know that it’s fun — it is longer lasting if you enjoy what you are doing rather than just doing it purely for health purposes.” Aspire is now in the midst of rolling out ‘talent centres’, which will recruit students who will be eligible to enter the academy at the age of 12. It is also developing programmes for children under that age to ease their way into the centre. But getting into Aspire will not be that easy. In the 12 months after it started tests in 2003, fewer than 1% of the 8000 Qatari boys who took part were selected. And although tests of girls have already started, Flock says the academy will not be ready to take them before 2008. “The background for female sports [in Qatar] is not strong enough yet to go for high-performance sports,” he says. Flock adds: “We have to build up slowly to prepare them for the hard training. If we took them now, it wouldn’t make sense because we’re not going for a Gulf championship — we are going for the Olympics and World Championships.” Flock also sees other opportunities for widening the centre’s catchment area — particularly in developing countries that lack their own hi-tech facilities. The academy has already given scholarships to children from Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Yemen, Jordan and Iraq, and is planning to base talent centres in India, Africa and various Middle Eastern countries. According to Flock, it also aims to create a programme with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which will see around 10% of the academy’s intake from poorer nations. Officials from the facility initiated talks with IOC chief Jacques Rogge during a three-day international summit in Doha on sports science earlier this month. “We are going to sign an agreement,” Flock says. “It’s about supporting, helping and giving opportunities to student athletes from developing countries. We will identify the best countries to work together with us.” The venture would fall under the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity body, which oversees funding and other forms of assistance for individual countries’ Olympic committees. According to Flock, talks with other governments will start once the two organisations have decided which countries are in most need of the programme. But he denies that athletes will be asked to compete for Qatar once they finish their training programmes. “That’s not our aim,” he says. “I was talking to Jacques Rogge and there will be a written agreement that there will be no nationalities changed in that process. We think that for the reputation of Aspire and Qatar, it will not matter whether we have an Olympic champion from Sudan, Somalia or any other country because everybody will know that he was raised, educated and trained in Qatar.” More important among Aspire’s aims, Dr. Flock says, will be to nurture Qatari champions over the long term and change perceptions in the Gulf state about the benefits of sport. He hopes to mirror the success he achieved at the Olympic Centre of Munich in the 10 years before he came to Qatar in 2003 — which saw it develop into one of the world’s leading elite sports institutions and secure over 80 Olympic medals during his directorship. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Qatar won’t take the easy path to gold, silver and bronze again, especially if the opportunity came up. “Every single country is doing it and if anyone says they are not, then they are lying,” Flock says. He adds: “All European countries are doing it — look at the French football team. And look at any Olympic team — you will always find it. If you get the chance as a government you will always try to get the odd one and Qatar might do the same — but it’s not the Aspire philosophy or the Aspire strategy.” Whether or not Flock succeeds remains to be seen. Within days of his annoucement, there was considerable interest from around the world, with aspiring atheletes keen to become part of the growing Qatari dream, and hoping it will one day lead them to Olympic glory. No time scale has been put on success, but with Flock's enthusiasm, the wait may not be as long as he expects. ||**||

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