Reflections from Doha Goals 2014

6 November 2014 | Posted in SportsPro Blog | By Michael Long | Contact the author

Reflections from Doha Goals 2014

The third annual Doha Goals Forum took place this week, with over 1,800 athletes, delegates and students from all over the world converging on the Qatari capital’s Aspire Zone for three days of discussions on how sport can be a tool for social progress.

The opening day of this year’s forum began, as is becoming tradition at the event, with an open fun run led by several former athletics champions. A late arrival in Doha the night before combined with the run’s early start meant this particular correspondent didn’t quite make it to the line as planned. Yours truly did, however, end up turning out for Team Portugal – a name hardly illustrative of a team composed largely of young students from a Nigerian academy – as they lifted the trophy in the subsequent soccer tournament staged inside the vast and impressive Aspire Dome.

While this year’s forum centred on four main ‘touchstones’ - engaging youth; innovation and creativity; empowering people; and the role of sport in the Middle East and North Africa – discussions in Doha were as diverse as ever, with the topics addressed ranging from the role of women and data in sport to the scourges of doping and racism. Plenty to discuss, then, in just three days but, for now, here’s a few personal highlights.

Foreman on form

After the opening speeches from the great and good of the Doha Goals organising team later on Monday, the evening’s programme featured an intimate one-on-one interview with the great George Forman. Ever-smiling and hilariously sharp, the former heavyweight champion of the world was in fine fettle as he recalled his experiences in the ring, including, a little over 40 years on, that infamous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ bout with Muhammad Ali.

Asked why Ali got the better of him on that balmy night in Kinshasa, Foreman noted: “I was over-confident, that’s all there is to it. No one had ever knocked him out in one or two rounds, but I figured I’d knock him out in three rounds at the most. I hit him with all I had and I had nothing left. He was experienced and he was accustomed to taking punishment. He beat me fair and square.”

Speaking to BBC News presenter Adnan Nawaz – easily the hardest working of anyone at the event having been virtually ever-present on stage throughout - Foreman went on to add that Ali “had a cause - and you just don’t knockout a cause”. That was just one of a number of wonderfully-crafted – and no doubt recycled - lines that kept the packed audience hanging on his every word throughout.

In the spirit of an event which calls itself ‘a catalyst for real social, political and economic change through the power of sport’, Foreman, a born-again Christian, philanthropist and ordained minister, also spoke about how we all have a common responsibility for each other.

“You’ve got to make certain that you share,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much you have. You read all the time that so and so died and he left a fortune – that’s not the way you want to do it. You want to share that fortune with your fellow man. Everyone needs a hand up.”

When the interview was over, a standing ovation duly followed.

Talking the talk

Foreman’s interview was the first in a series of ‘Time Out’ sessions that would take place at this year’s forum. Other interviewees included former German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, Jamaican triple Olympic gold medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown, ex-sprinter Linford Christie, and retired tennis playboy Ilie Nastase.

Slotted in at appropriate times throughout the three days, the informal 15-minute-or-so reminiscences were undoubtedly highlights of the event, and organisers elsewhere might want to take note.

Not only are they an effective way of keeping delegates interested throughout what can be long and dry days at such gatherings, but they also serve as a reminder of what sport is all about. Instead of getting eternally bogged down in weighty issues or dull cliché fests, sometimes it’s refreshing to sit back and just enjoy the stories of those who actually lived or are living it.

No-win, no fee?

Speaking of weighty issues affecting sport, Tuesday’s programme included a panel debate on doping and how offences should be punished. Moderated by triple jump world record holder Jonathan Edward, the panel featured World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Sir Craig Reedie and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a three-time Olympic heptathlon champion who now serves as director of USA Track & Field.

Reedie, an IOC executive board member who took up his role at WADA last year, called for greater cooperation between governmental authorities and sanctioning bodies within sport in order to more effectively combat the threat of doping.

“If you cheat, especially at the highest level of a sport, you can inflict huge damage on that sport,” Reedie warned. “Yes, sport should sanction its own people but with greater assistance from the public authorities. For example, WADA is 50 per cent sport, 50 per cent public authorities.

“We should criminalise the import and distribution of performance-enhancing substances but we need legislation and regulation in all countries to be implemented. It’s a big ask but we need to keep asking.”

With Edwards’ consummate guidance, the discussion later turned - somewhat inevitably - to the case of Justin Gatlin, the American sprinter who returned from a drugs ban in 2010 and has since recorded some of the fastest 100m times in history.

Reports prior to the forum had suggested that physiological benefits associated with taking some banned substances could last longer than the term of the prescribed suspension, suggesting that life-long bans – or at least far longer terms – would be a better course of action. Joyner-Kersee, however, was quick to defend her fellow American.

“I believe in second chances and I believe Justin paid his dues and served the time,” she said. “But now everyone is upset because he bounced back and is doing well. It’s a no-win situation.”

Doping is indeed no-win and never mind the physiological benefits, there is a strong ethical case to say that those who are found to have cheated should be given life bans from competing at the elite level. If proven cheaters are to continue to be allowed back into competition, though, why not remove the financial reward by significantly restricting the prize money they can subsequently earn? Better still: why not donate that money to anti-doping education and practices?

Skills: cool

One man for whom sport is not about the money is Sean Garnier, the two-time world freestyle soccer champion who was on hand in Doha to wow the crowds, both old and young, on several occasions. Having won everything there is to win in freestyle soccer, the Frenchman currently travels the world as a leading ambassador for the fast-growing discipline. Earning opportunities have come thick and fast as a result of his success but while the popularity of the sport continues to soar, Garnier believes freestylers should never count on getting the financial rewards their talent deserves.

“It’s not about money; it’s about loving the sport first,” he told SportsPro. “To win, you have to look at yourself as an artist, not as a footballer. You are like a singer or a dancer. You produce and present yourself all around the world and every time there is an event you can have a show. It’s more like this.”

It will come as little surprise that Red Bull is Garnier’s main sponsor, such is the brand’s ability to plant itself within just about every youth-driven, progressive sport out there.

“Red Bull have done a lot for me because they organise the world championship and I won the first one, so it was a really good opportunity,” says Garnier. “After, they sponsored me and they took me all over the world, making shows in different countries. For me, it was the beginning of my career internationally and now I am still with them and everything is cool.”

In the same way not every soccer player can perform the same tricks as a freestyler – even Neymar floundered when put up against Garnier - not every brand can pull the same stunts as successfully as Red Bull. Garnier, however, believes freestyle soccer provides a definite opportunity for any company looking to tap into the digitally-addicted, content-hungry younger generation.

“All the brands follow football but in 90 minutes sometimes you get just one shot or one trick – it’s not always very good,” he says. “But in freestyle you just give the ball to one freestyler and in one minute you’re going to make a video that no other footballer can do. For a brand it’s really easy because now everything is about social media and videos and it means freestyle can be very beneficial for them.”

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