Kamran Jebreili, File, Associated Press
DOHA, Qatar — A year after Qatar became the first Arab country to win the right to host the World Cup, the tiny but wealthy Persian Gulf nation is immersed in efforts to make more history by bringing the Olympics to the Middle East in 2020.
Flush with billions of dollars from oil and gas sales, Qatar hopes to build on its surprise victory in winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Stuck between powerful Mideast rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar also aims to capitalize on its role as a peacemaker after a year of enormous political upheaval in the region.
It was a tough year for Qatar, a small Muslim nation that has gained influence in international diplomacy and sports over the past decade. The country has never qualified for the World Cup and was criticized for spending lavishly to defeat countries such as the United States and Australia for the 2022 bid. Skeptics were particularly harsh after the downfall of Qatar's top soccer official and former Asian federation president, Mohammed bin Hammam.
Just months after bin Hammam helped his country clinch the World Cup, FIFA banned him from soccer for life for allegedly paying bribes in his unsuccessful campaign against Sepp Blatter to become the group's president.
In interviews with The Associated Press, Qatari sports officials said the country has moved on from the World Cup controversy and is fully focused on the Olympics.
"The World Cup file is closed," said Sheik Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the secretary general of Qatar's Olympic Committee. "We are thinking ahead and planning for the future, bidding for Olympic Games and maybe other events."
Over the past decade, Qatar has been targeting sports as a vehicle to showcase its global aspirations. Doha successfully hosted major sporting events such as the Asian Games in 2006 and annual tennis tournaments featuring many of the world's top-ranked players. This year alone, the capital hosted Asia's continental soccer tournament in January and the opening Diamond League track meet in May.
Doha is vying for the 2020 Olympics with Baku, Azerbaijan; Istanbul, Turkey; Tokyo; Madrid; and Rome. The candidate cities must submit their plans for the games to the International Olympic Committee by February. The IOC executive board will meet in May to decide whether to keep all candidates or reduce the list. The IOC will select the host city in September 2013.
The meeting in May is key for Doha. The Gulf city was eliminated early from the campaign for the 2016 Olympics after the IOC board rejected Doha's request to stage the games outside the preferred July-August time slot, saying it would conflict with the international sporting calendar.
It was the soaring summer heat that quelled Qatar's first Olympic campaign four years ago. Since then, the desert country where temperatures can reach 122 degrees in June and July won the right to host the 2022 World Cup based on a plan to cool the stadiums with innovative design and air-conditioning systems.
Soccer officials such as UEFA President Michel Platini have since indicated they'd be happy to reschedule European league schedules to allow the World Cup in Qatar to be played in the winter.
During several meetings with the IOC to see if the board would be able to accommodate Doha's request to stage the games later in the year, Saoud said his city received a nod to hosting the Olympics between Sept. 20 and Oct. 20 if it submits the bid.
"We've learnt from the previous bid," said Saoud, who is a member Qatar's ruling Al Thani family. "We wanted to show that we are a strong, reliable partner. We are in love with sports and we want to work together to bring the Olympics to Doha and share our passion with the region."
The message the 2020 officials are trying to get across is not much different from the one they used four years ago.
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