DOHA • Qatar has defied soaring coronavirus cases to stage major sporting events, serving as a test bed ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 World Cup, but also suffering high-profile setbacks.
Doha, among the most controversial World Cup hosts of the modern era, has bucked the trend of more established sporting nations which have cancelled or postponed a slew of elite events.
Instead, it has deployed multi-billion dollar venues, luxury hotels-turned-quarantine centres and a robust Covid-19 testing system to host football, golf, tennis, motorcycling, judo and beach volleyball events - some with spectators.
Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian Sport at EM Lyon University, said full-fledged tournaments complete with fans were key to Qatar's strategy to diversify its economy away from gas and oil dependence.
"It is reckless to be staging events during times of rising infection, but... the inconvenient truth for Qatar is that the country has rolled the dice big on sporting events," he added.
Since winning the role of World Cup 2022 hosts back in 2010, Qatar has been dogged by accusations of worker mistreatment, corruptly obtaining the tournament, and being an unsuitable venue because of the desert nation's inhospitable climate.
Now it looks certain that the coronavirus and efforts to suppress the pandemic instead will dominate the lead-up.
Doha and Fifa have insisted that the 2022 World Cup will proceed with fans from across the globe, and a minister last week said Qatar was in talks with vaccine makers to ensure all attendees could be vaccinated, to make the tournament "Covid-free".
However, breaches of Qatar's elaborate and costly efforts to stage sports have highlighted the risks and vulnerabilities in enforcement, issues the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics will have to confront this summer.
Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller tested positive ahead of February's Club World Cup final in Doha, while American tennis player Denis Kudla learnt he was positive mid-game while qualifying for the Australian Open.
Another case was detected in the beach volleyball "bubble", while there were prominent bio-security breaches including VVIPs sitting in player boxes at the Qatar Open and players greeting non-bubble guests at the Club World Cup.
25,000 coronavirus cases in the past month in Qatar, with a population of 2.75 million.
But a Qatari official defended the positive cases, claiming the authorities worked with each event's organisers to "pick the best (bio-security) option while keeping track of local transmission rates".
James Dorsey, author of the Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, said trying different approaches to containment was "not a bad strategy - because at least you know what works".
MotoGP, which resumed in Qatar last month after a virus hiatus, offered vaccines to everyone in the paddock.
Dorsey believes an inoculation requirement for 2022 World Cup attendees "would make sense".
"Verifying vaccines would certainly be possible, Qatar vaccinating (fans) would not necessarily be feasible. But it also depends on how travel develops," he said.
"For the 2022 World Cup, strong progress is being made regarding vaccination both in Qatar and internationally. This may increase opportunities for international visitors, all being well," added Dr Andrew Murray, chief medical officer for golf's European Tour which visited Qatar last month.
Qatar has suffered a surge of cases and deaths in recent months, with almost 25 per cent of its more than 380 fatalities so far recorded this month alone.
In the past 30 days, more than 25,000 people tested positive, compared to just 7,501 in January, among a population of 2.75 million, although there is no evidence linking sporting events to the surge.
Doha has blamed mutant strains and social gatherings, emphasising the administration of more than 1.2 million vaccine doses.