Warholm: ‘Just a hypocrite’ in Qatar

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Norway has sent what one veteran athlete calls “perhaps its best teams ever” to the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. The athletes themselves, however, are well aware of the downside in Doha, where thousands of mostly migrant labourers have toiled on the sports facilities and hotels under extremely poor conditions and some haven’t even been paid. Star athlete Karsten Warholm is among those uncomfortable with the situation but resigned to “just being an infernal hypocrite.”

Norway’s Karsten Warholm is among the biggest World Championship favourites from Norway, competing in the 400-meter hurdles on Monday night. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

“I think it’s terrible to think that folks have had to work there (in Doha) under very bad conditions and have beem injured,” Warholm told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “And it’s been documented that people have died during construction.”

Amnesty International has issued a new report showing how promised reforms meant to secure workers’ rights have not functioned. Some of the labourers on athletic facilities that were rehabilitated and built for the World Championships have earned as little as one US dollar an hour, if they’ve been paid at all. Qatar introduced a minimum wage of only around USD 200 a month in 2017 and promised before that to end its kafala system that forbids workers to change jobs without their employer’s consent. Amnesty reports that it’s still in place.

NRK reported that nearly 4,000 poor migrant labourers worked on the newly refurbished Khalifa International Stadium. The BBC has reported that the labourers, many from Nepal, have often worked 14-hour days in Qatar’s intense heat for nothing. Those who weren’t paid were supposed to be able to file a claim and if they won, their promised wages would be paid from a fund. Authorities in Qatar would then demand the money from the employers.

Qatar officials ‘need more time’
Amnesty has reported, however, that the system has not worked, the labourers have gone without pay for months and have spoken of desperate situations. Some give up and attempt to travel home, while others use the last of their money to go to court hearings on their claim but their employers don’t show up or reject the claims. It’s the workers themselves who must pay for the court case as well.

Authorities in Qatar responded to NRK’s requests for comment with a statement that they were aware of the recent report published by Amnesty International on the status of workers in Qatar. They claimed, however, that Qatar has made progress in its labour reforms and that “all problems and delays with our system” would be “thoroughly addressed.” They claimed the process demands “time and resources.”

John Peder Egenæs, secretary general of Amnesty in Norway, claimed the Qatari officials are simply trying to “whitewash” themselves. The most important thing for them, he believes, is to”create a picture out in the world … that this is a fine place” and they want “to overshadow the dark side of their society.” He doesn’t think a boycott would have helped, though, and said Amnesty didn’t encourage one.

Boycott rejected
Norwegian athletics officials confirmed to NRK that they have never discussed any boycott of the World Championships, claiming they don’t want to rob athetes of the opportunity to compete. “In the large and global context I think there are others who should deal with politics, while we should deal with athletics and be part of clarifying the areas we as a nation are responsible for,” said the new president of Norway’s national athletics federation NIF (Norges idrettsforbund) Berit Kjøll. She added that she thinks competitive sports can “build bridges” regarding countries that have “challenges” relating to, for example, human rights.

She told NRK she was “completely convinced” that such countries don’t want the negative publicity that’s surrounded Qatar, not least following news coverage of the labour situation by The Guardian, the BBC and other major media outlets. “But that’s a consequence of hosting a major sports events, and then it’s our duty to clarify and explain what we distance ourselves from.”

One thing the Norwegian delegation immediately “distanced itself” from were the conditions their faced at their own hotels when they checked in. They were met by “terribly unhygienic” conditions, sewage odor and mildew in the bathrooms, and made it clear the rooms for the athletes and officials were not only unacceptable but potentially a health hazard. They found and paid for new rooms, and will file a complaint of their own.

European sports officials also didn’t support a boycott. “I haven’t heard any of our 51 (member countries) talking about a boycott, and I think it would have been wrong,” Svein Arne Hansen, president of the European athletics association EAA. “I think you need to develop cooperation by being there.”

‘We’re not politicians’
Other Norwegian athletes like the Ingebrigtsen brothers didn’t support any boycott either. “I see that they (officials in Qatar) violate human rights, and that folks work in bad conditions here, but that doesn’t change what we’re trying to achieve,” Henrik Ingebrigtsen, who was among those running in the 4,000-meter event Monday evening, told newspaper Dagbladet. “We shouldn’t destroy sports by turning it into politics. You can disagree on abortion, human rights, homosexuality, marriage and so on, but now we’re competing.” He also told Aftenposten “we’re not politicians.”

Warholm, however, told NRK that he’s talked about a boycott, noting that with an Olympics coming up again next year, “I could have gladly skipped this.” He was clearly happy, though, after easily qualifying for Monday night’s final in the 400-meter hurdles and telling Norwegian reporters that “God is from Sunnmøre,” referring to his home region of Norway.

He added that “I feel that as an athlete, we must be able to rely on those over us in the system, those who are responsible, and that they make the right decision on our behalf. And they have to defend that decision.”

He also said he’s not sure “most folks” understand what he puts into his sport. “I go to training, I go home, I get bored, I sleep, and then I go to training the next day, all because I want to deliver the few times I have the chance.” He was also competing Monday night, in the 400-meter hurdles, and was among the favourites to win.

“It’s a bit difficult to set yourself aside, at the same time I wish I was big enough to do that,” Warholm told NRK. “I just decided to travel (to Doha), I’ll make the best out of it. I realize that I’ll just be a forbasket (infernal, doggone) hypocrite, travel there and run and jump, and then come home.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund