Last month, while bidding for the right to host the 2019 world outdoor track and field championships, a Qatari official bragged about his country’s unyielding enthusiasm for sports.
“Qatar has a true passion for sports. Everything in our country revolves around sport,” bid presenter Aphrodite Moschoudi said in a presentation before world track and field’s governing body, according to the Associated Press.
The pitch worked: With visions of sports-mad Qataris packing the stadium (and with $37 million newly deposited into its bank account), the IAAF tabbed Doha, Qatar to host the event, winning the vote ahead of Eugene, Ore., and Barcelona.
But the Associated Press’s John Leicester has found that Qatar’s love of sports only goes so far, and that Qataris aren’t exactly filling arenas. In fact, they’re actively avoiding them. But, as is often the case in the oil-rich country that also successfully (some say unethically) won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, it’s nothing that a little cash can’t solve.
Leicester found that migrant workers from Asia and Africa — the compatriots of people who are dying by the thousands to build World Cup stadiums and other infrastructure in the rapidly growing nation — are being paid to be pretend sports “fans.”
Thirty Qatar riyals — equivalent to $8 — won’t buy a beer in the luxury waterside hotel in Doha, the capital, where Qatari movers-and-shakers unwind. But for this pittance, workers from Africa and Asia sprint under blinding sun in the Doha industrial zone where they’re housed and surround a still-moving bus like bees on honey. They sit through volleyball, handball and football, applaud to order, do the wave with no enthusiasm and even dress up in white robes and head-scarves as Qataris, to plump up “home” crowds.
The Associated Press squeezed aboard one of three buses that ferried about 150 workers, through dense traffic of luxury cars and past luxury villas they’ll never be able to afford, to be fake fans at the Qatar Open of international beach volleyball in November.
The FIVB, volleyball’s governing body, trumpeted on its website that the tournament, part of its World Tour, “brought out the crowds.” But migrants from Ghana, Kenya, Nepal and elsewhere, who work in Qatar as bus and taxi drivers for the state-owned transport company and for other employers, told the AP they were there for money, not volleyball.
Here’s the best part: Qatar’s government has found that its countrymen are shunning sporting events exactly because all the other fans are fake. “A survey of 1,079 Qatar residents published this January by the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics suggested that paid fans may be turning Qataris off sport. The ministry said two-thirds of Qataris surveyed did not attend any football matches during the previous season and two-thirds of respondents cited ‘the spread of paid fans’ as a ‘significant reason’ keeping audiences away,” Leicester writes.
The “fans,” meanwhile, are getting a pretty good gig, at least compared with their usual horrid working conditions. They get 30 riyals for volleyball and 20 or 25 riyals for soccer. One Kenyan told Leicester that he got 50 riyals for a handball match. Plus, there’s free Wi-Fi at the arenas, allowing them to keep tabs on news from home.
“Shaking my body all over … being in the crowd and shouting and dancing” was great fun for Adu, a trainee bus driver from Ghana who gave just his first name.
“Being there and getting paid is a plus for me.”