May 15, 2015

DOHA, Qatar (AP) Qatar's main athletics track seems to sit between two worlds, maybe a little like the country.

On one side of Qatar Sports Club the wind whips up the desert sand and a fine-looking old mosque stands alone.

Over on the other side looms Doha's burgeoning skyline of high-rise towers. The construction cranes tell you more and more will sprout up in the Qatari capital out of ground that used to be desert.

With money to burn from its prodigious oil and gas wealth, Qatar is treating itself to a major makeover in preparation for some big sports events coming its way: the 2019 world athletics championships, the 2022 soccer World Cup and probably, ultimately, the Olympics.

''We have the expertise and the know-how. We have the means,'' Qatar Athletics Federation president Dahlan al-Hamad said of the tiny but incredibly rich Gulf state's pursuit of mega events.

And through sport, Qatar's face is changing for sure. But is it only skin deep?

Doha's Diamond League meet appears like any other modern meet: Music blares from speakers between events. Kids hold out their hands to high-five athletes as they come off track. Nike and adidas T-shirts are autographed and brightly-colored cellphones are unfailingly thrust out at the star names, selfies demanded more than requested.

Olympic and world long-distance champion Mo Farah - on his first visit to Qatar - doesn't mind. He's used to this all over the world. He ducks in and out of photos, grinning.

It wasn't always like this at Doha's track meet, though, and not because selfies weren't really the thing in the days before the Diamond League series. Veteran 400-meter hurdler Felix Sanchez remembered competing in Qatar in 2002.

''I don't believe at that time women were allowed to come watch the competition,'' he said. ''So, it was a different atmosphere.''

Sanchez said he noticed only lines of Qatari men in traditional white robes in the stands. No women, no kids, and not much cheering.

''It was odd,'' Sanchez said. ''But, you know, every country's different.''

On Friday night, this same meet was different. There were men and women, boys and girls. In the stands and on the track.

Before the main events, Qatari schoolgirls ran a 100-meter race and a 4x100 relay. They were in sleek but modest long running pants and some wore Hijabs, or headscarves. But they were also sporting funky running spikes with sparkling gold and silver soles.

Change? Maybe. But maybe Qatari organizers are aware of the line of international reporters hovering over laptops trackside and remembering the criticism Qatar has received recently over the place of women and girls.

At the Aspire sports academy across town, state-of-the-art facilities include a mini athletics stadium and a soccer stadium contained inside a cavernous, air-conditioned dome to shelter them from the sweltering desert heat outside. Farah spent some time as a guest there this week - a great PR coup, as Qatar is good at.

''I was thinking, gosh, the technology,'' Farah said. ''It was just incredible.''

With no expense spared, Aspire produced Mutaz Essa Barshim, Qatar's high jump indoor world champion and Olympic bronze medalist, and Qatar desperately hopes it can create a couple of other potential contenders before the 2019 worlds.

But Qatar's future stars look set to be boys only, for now. There is no formal track and field program for girls yet, a coach explained. It's coming, but it's slow.

Back at Qatar Sports Club, the lines of white-robed men in the stands Sanchez remembered have gone nowadays.

On Friday, there were ex-pat Aussies and Brits, and a group of raucous Ethiopians, cheering, chanting and constantly ignoring the announcer's request to quieten down for the start of races.

What about the Qataris? Aren't they getting more into sports as the major events arrive? The well-off Qatari citizens - who number less than 300,000 in their own country - appeared to retreat into the VIP enclosures for some ice tea. They were happy to let the Ethiopians - some of the 1.5 million-plus migrant workers here - do the cheering for them.

That's easy for the Ethiopians when one of their multitude of top distance runners hands Farah a rare loss. Qatar, aside from Barshim, has hardly any top athletes. So it needs to get some, and quick, and the short-term fix is to recruit from elsewhere.

One Qatari prospect is 18-year-old Abdalleleh Haroun, a 400-meter runner who won a race in a decent 44.85 seconds. Only, he's originally from Sudan. And he doesn't spend too much time in Qatar because he struggles to train outdoors in the scorching temperatures, he said. During what's probably one of few exchanges he has had with reporters, he was watched over carefully by a Qatari team handler.

''Everything here is fine. I am so happy,'' Haroun said. He said he trains mostly in Europe.

The difficulty for Qatar athletics is the mercury regularly pushes up toward 47 degrees Celsius (116 F) in the middle months and that's something it can't change or address.

Or can it?

For the 2019 worlds, Qatar will have a night marathon to avoid the daytime heat, just one of a number of innovations it says it'll bring in for athletics' top event to make it suit this country. Because Qatar thinks athletics needs to change a little too.


Gerald Imray is on Twitter at

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