Monday, February 22, 2010

Man, Oman...I'm Just Saying

I often have visions of riding my bike through beautiful parts of the world. Places like Tuscany, Marin County, southern France and of course, the Middle East. Don’t get me wrong, I love lush hills and beautiful forests but nothing beats scorching hot, flat, windy terrain to really bring out the joy of riding a bicycle. Throw some hefty prize money in with the subtle scent of burning oil and you’ve got yourself a perfect location for a major professional bike race. Actually, make that two. Hello Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman, thank you for your donations.

So…basically, someone at ASO must have sniffed out a few deep pockets in the desert, because now we have over two weeks of world class bike racing taking place in countries whose monarchs are desperately trying to figure out what to do when the oil runs out. Their strategy is to stimulate tourism but admittedly, there is a not-so-subtle irony to having countries that profit immensely from fossil fuels endorsing a sport and industry that actively promotes alternative forms of transportation. Beyond ASO’s connection to golf, tennis and motorsports, there seems to be little relevance for bicycling in the Middle East outside of Eddy Merckx’s endorsement and boatloads of cash.

While this portion of the calendar may not be terribly exciting for many European and North American fans, it must be a pretty nice part of the year for the riders. In addition to awarding more than $12,000 to the overall winner of each event, both the Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman offered over $20,000 for each stage and rolled out a heavily air-conditioned red carpet for the race caravan. When it comes to wealth and the desire to show it, few hosts are as accommodating as Qatar and Oman. As such, the races have been more exciting than anticipated, and the overall sentiment from the riders has been positive.

However, I can’t help but wonder about the long-term effects of this model on cycling as a spectator sport, not to mention how it reflects the relationship between the UCI and ASO. The prize money for these events is certainly enticing but the other primary factor is that most of the “wild-card” teams are likely trying to secure favor with ASO so that they can participate in other events like Paris-Nice and the Tour de France. So basically, we have two weeks of racing in the desert with minimal spectators, lots of money, and a fleet of teams who are there in order to secure spots in later races. Again, I’m not sure how much this helps the sport in the long run.

So...just out of curiosity, I decided to do a little bit of research on Qatar and Oman. Courtesy of my good friend Wikipedia, the following tidbits may be interesting. But then again, considering that the source was Wikipedia, they also may or may not be correct. Regardless, I think there is some interesting food for thought about the countries who claim be ushering in the New Year for bike racing. History, hills and cultural significance be damned...

Qatar: OverviewBold

Qatar is an Arab emirate in the Middle East, occupying a small peninsula on the northeastern coast of the larger Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south.

Qatar is an oil- and gas-rich nation, with the third largest gas reserves and the highest GDP per capita in the world. An absolute monarchy, Qatar has been ruled by the al-Thani family since the mid-1800s and has since transformed itself from a poor British protectorate noted mainly for pearling into an independent state with significant oil and natural gas revenues.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Qatari economy was crippled by a continuous siphoning off of petroleum revenues by the Emir, who had ruled the country since 1972. His son, the current Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 1995. In 2001, Qatar resolved its longstanding border disputes with both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Since 1995, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has ruled Qatar, seizing control of the country from his father Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani while the latter vacationed in Switzerland. Under Emir Hamad, Qatar has experienced a notable amount of sociopolitical liberalization, including the endorsement of women’s suffrage or right to vote, drafting a new constitution, and the launch of Al Jazeera, a leading English and Arabic news source which operates a website and satellite television news channel.

The International Monetary Fund states that Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world, followed by Liechtenstein. The World Factbook ranks Qatar at second, following Liechtenstein.

Qatar served as the headquarters and one of the main launching sites of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Government and Politics

Qatar has an emirate government type, based on Islamic and civil law codes. It is a discretionary system of law controlled by the Amir, although civil codes are being implemented. Islamic law dominates family and personal matters; the country has not accepted compulsory International Court of Justice jurisdiction.


Qatar is sometimes referred to as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Qataris’ wealth and standard of living compare well with those of Western European states. With no income tax, Qatar, along with Bahrain, is one of the countries with the lowest tax rates in the world.

EnvironmentaBoldl Issues

Qatar has the highest per-capita carbon dioxide emissions, at 55.5 metric tons per person in 2005. This is almost double the next highest per-capita emitting country, Kuwait at 30.7 metric tons (2005) and three times that of the United States.

Qatar has had the highest per-capita carbon dioxide emissions for the past 18 years. These emissions are largely due to high rates of energy use include natural gas processing, water desalination and electricity production. Between 1995 and 2011 the electricity generating capacity of Qatar will have increased to six times the previous level. The fact that Qataris do not have to pay for either their water or electricity supplies is thought to contribute to their high rate of energy use. Despite being a desert state they are also one of the highest consumers of water per capita per day, using around 400 litres.


The Qatari peninsula juts 100 miles (161 km) north into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia and is slightly smaller than the state of Massachusetts, USA. Much of the country consists of a low, barren plain, covered with sand.

The highest point in Qatar is Qurayn Abu al Bawl at 103 metres (340 ft) in the Jebel Dukhan.


Expatriates form the majority of Qatar’s residents, and the petrochemical industry has attracted people from all around the world. Most of the expatriates come from South Asia and from non-oil-rich Arab states. Because a large percentage of the expatriates are male, Qatar has a heavily skewed sex ratio, with 3.46 males per female.

In July 2007, the country had a growing population of approximately 907,229 people, of whom approximately 350,000 were believed to be citizens. Qatari citizens follow the dominant Hanbali branch of Islam practiced in neighboring Saudi Arabia, therefore it is considered the culturally closest Persian Gulf state to Saudi Arabia.

The majority of the estimated 800,000 non-citizens are individuals from South and South East Asian and Arab countries working on temporary employment contracts, in most cases without their accompanying family members. Most foreign workers and their families live near the major employment centers of Doha, Al Khor, Mesaieed, and Dukhan.

Qatari Law

When contrasted with other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, for instance, Qatar has comparatively liberal laws, but is still not as liberal as some other Arab states of the Persian Gulf like UAE or Bahrain. Qatar is a civil law jurisdiction. However, Shari’a or Islamic law is applied to aspects of family law, inheritance and certain criminal acts. Women can legally drive in Qatar and there is a strong emphasis in equality and human rights brought by Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee. Qatar also has the largest fines in the world in terms of traffic violation as per the recent change in 2010.

The country has undergone a period of liberalization and modernisation during the reign of the current Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who came to power in 1995. The laws of Qatar tolerate alcohol to a certain extent. However, the few bars and nightclubs in Qatar operate only in expensive hotels and clubs, much like in the UAE. Also like in the UAE, Muslims are banned from drinking alcohol. Expatriate residents in Qatar are eligible to receive liquor permits permitting them to purchase alcohol for personal use through Qatar Distribution Company, the only importer and retailer for alcohol in Qatar. Under Qatar’s Sharia, alcohol is illegal in public.

In common with other Persian Gulf Arab countries, sponsorship laws exist in Qatar. These laws have been widely described as akin to modern-day slavery. The Sponsorship system (Kafeel or Kafala) exists throughout the GCC and means that a worker (not a tourist) may not enter the country without having a kafeel, cannot leave without the kafeel’s permission (an Exit Permit must first be awarded by the sponsor, or kafeel), and the sponsor has the right to ban the employee from entering Qatar within 2–5 years of his first departure. Many sponsors do not allow the transfer of one employee to another sponsor.

Health Care

Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) is the premier non-profit health care provider in Doha, Qatar. Established by the Emiri decree in 1979, HMC manages four highly specialised hospitals: Hamad General Hospital, Rumailah Hospital, Women’s Hospital, Psychiatric Hospital and the Primary Health Care Centres. These hospitals are quite sophisticated by the standards of the region, with most hosting advanced fMRI and other scanning machines. Most of them have many patients affected by Down syndrome and other mental illness caused by the high rate of cousin marriage in the country.

Human Rights

Qatar is a destination country for men and women from South and Southeast Asia who migrate willingly, but are subsequently trafficked into involuntary servitude as domestic workers and laborers, and, to a lesser extent, commercial sexual exploitation; the most common offence was forcing workers to accept worse contract terms than those under which they were recruited; other conditions include bonded labor, withholding of pay, restrictions on movement, arbitrary detention, and physical, mental, and sexual abuse.

According to the Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department, men and women who are lured into Qatar by promises of high wages are often forced into underpaid labor. The report states that Qatari laws against forced labour are rarely enforced and that labour laws often result in the detention of victims in deportation centres, pending the completion of legal proceedings. The report places Qatar at tier 3, as one of the countries that neither satisfies the minimum standards nor demonstrates significant efforts to come into compliance.

The government maintains that it is setting the benchmark when it comes to human rights and treatment of labourers.

International Rankings:

Institute for Economics and Peace
Global Peace Index
16 out of 144
United Nations Development Programme
Human Development Index
33 out of 182
Transparency International
Corruption Perceptions Index
22 out of 180
World Economic Forum
Global Competitiveness Report
22 out of 133

Oman: Overview

Oman is an Arab country in southwest Asia on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It borders the United Arab Emirates on the northwest, Saudi Arabia on the west and Yemen on the southwest.

The Dhofar Rebellion was launched in the province of Dhofar against the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman and Britain from 1962 to 1975. As the radical-leaning rebellion threatened to overthrow the Sultan’s rule in Dhofar and produced disorder in other parts of Oman, Sultan Said bin Taimur was deposed by his son Qaboos bin Said, who introduced major social reforms to deprive the rebellion of popular support and modernised the state’s administration. The rebellion ended with the intervention of Iranian Imperial ground forces and major offensives by the expanded Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces.


Chief of state and government is the hereditary sultān, Qaboos bin Said Al Said who appoints a cabinet called the “Diwans” to assist him. In the early 1990s, the sultan instituted an elected advisory council, the Majlis ash-Shura, though few Omanis were eligible to vote. Universal suffrage for those over 21 was instituted on 4 October 2003. Over 190,000 people (74% of those registered) voted to elect the 84 seats. Two women were elected to seats.

The country today has three women ministers Rawiyah bint Saud al Busaidiyah - Minister of Higher Education, Sharifa bint Khalfan al Yahya’eyah - Minister of Social Development and Rajiha bint Abdulamir bin Ali al Lawati - Minister of Tourism. There are no legal political parties nor, at present, any active opposition movement. As more and more young Omanis return from education abroad, it seems likely that the traditional, tribal-based political system will have to be adjusted. A State Consultative Council, established in 1981, consisted of 55 appointed representatives of government, the private sector, and regional interests.


Omani law does not provide the right of union formation. The law forbids a strike for any reason. Collective bargaining is not permitted, however there exist labour-management committees in firms with more than 50 workers. These committees are not authorized to discuss conditions of employment, including hours and wages.

The minimum working age is 13, but this provision is not enforced against the employment of children in family businesses or on family farms. The minimum wage for non-professional workers was $260 per month in 2002. However, many classes of workers (domestic servants, farmers, government employees) are not required to receive the minimum wage and the government is not consistent in its enforcement of the minimum wage law.

International Rankings:

Institute for Economics and Peace
Global Peace Index
21 out of 144
United Nations Development Programme
Human Development Index
56 out of 182
Transparency International
Corruption Perceptions Index
39 out of 180
World Economic Forum
Global Competitiveness Report
41 out of 133

Even though it is somewhat disconcerting to research these friends of ASO, there are obviously many other countries that are far less appealing than Qatar and Oman if you're looking to develop your sport. Or pad your bank account.

So there you have it. Just a nice little background story for the last few weeks of professional bike racing. It’s always good to know some history…unless you’re getting paid to ignore it. D’oh.

Or is it Doha?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Suspended Disbelief - Reality Sucks

Perhaps the culprit is old age. It may also be a result of the economy. There is no question that Winter is at least partly to blame, and the sad end of Jersey Shore on MTV is certainly a factor. Whatever the combination of reasons, I've been a bit depressed lately.

The Super Bowl was a nice distraction, and I was happy for New Orleans but the viewing experience ended up being bittersweet. The commercials almost ruined it for me. My expectations were pretty low to begin with (since I do not particularly enjoy talking babies or snack and beverage-related humor) but I was especially bummed out when Joe Montana somehow ended up on a Sketchers ad for those ridiculous-looking clubfoot sneakers. It was so bad that he didn't even show his face and only did a voice-over with his name on the screen but still. This is not something that the best quarterback of all time should have been doing. The 49ers would never have won four Super Bowls with a Sketchers-wearing QB, and you can be sure that Ronnie Lott would rather cut his whole arm off than do a commercial like that.

It was also somewhat odd to see Lance Armstrong and various other people acting like Lance Armstrong in a Michelob Ultra commercial. I didn't mind the stunt-doubles and uber-extremeness of drinking low-calorie beer but I think that they officially killed any hope of coolness by using that freaking "Woo Hoo" song by Blur (Google "Woo Hoo Song"). That song actually makes me angry at this point. But strangely, it also makes me want to consume some crappy light beer while watching stupid movies starring Denise Richards and Drew Barrymore. Seriously though, that song came out in 1997...can we get some tunes from this century on the extreme playlist?

Oh wait, I just remembered that the Halftime Show featured a band of 65 year old dudes, so...maybe 13 years isn’t that bad.

Anyway, it's not like I'm sitting in a dark room listening to Cure records or anything but I have been a bit gloomy lately, and am trying to locate the positive mojo that usually influences my demeanor. The problem is that the world is often a horribly depressing place, and it is sometimes quite difficult to remove oneself from the soul-crushing weight of reality on display in places like Haiti, the UCI, Iraq and Massachusetts.

But the problem is not really reality. Reality and I have always had a somewhat contentious relationship anyway (I did grow up in Marin and Boulder...) so its influence on my mental state is debatable at best. Like many Americans, I will always have to shield myself from reality in order to avoid oppressive feelings of guilt for being so obscenely, ridiculously lucky. Again, reality is not the problem.

The problem is that my relationship with professional athletics - the primary tool with which I have historically detached myself from reality - has been damaged to the point that I am now having trouble separating the sanctity of sports from the nasty truths of human nature and life on planet Earth. There is no escape anymore.

The sports world is largely entertainment, but it is so much more. Professional athletics allow us a rare glimpse at a world which acknowledges concrete rules of play, with exceptionally qualified performers operating in a constantly shifting and unpredictable environment. Sure, there are always people who circumvent the rules but more than most, it is a world that overwhelmingly rewards those who deserve it.

What makes sports even better is that we have access to highly quantifiable statistics of performance that confirm the value of professional worth and success. There are very few cases of nepotism in sports and no one simply inherits a career as an athlete. Regardless of circumstance, the sporting world does not tolerate notions of entitlement. Unless you are a football coach (which seems to be the only profession that appreciates Bush-level name recognition) there are very few opportunities to coast on the efforts of your relatives or the relative size of their bank accounts.

For the most part, this is a great phenomenon but it can lead to some potential problems with how we, as a culture, view professional athletes as human beings. For example, just because some guy from a tough neighborhood can catch footballs exceptionally well and endorse a line of shoes does not mean that he is necessarily an excellent person off the field. But for some reason, our culture often views world-class athletes as better human beings, not just better physical specimens. Perhaps this is why we are so often disappointed by them.

In reality, the gift of supreme athletic prowess is arguably more random and unfair than any inheritance or trust fund could ever be. Physical superiority in sports is far more rare and discriminating than any Good Old Boys Network or family business could ever be. After all, you can’t buy things like coordination, size and speed.

All of these factors have likely contributed to my appreciation for cycling, a sport in which physical gifts and family finances are important but often trumped by determination, effort and sheer force of will. All things considered, bike racing favors those who have experienced adversity and possess the character to fight through suffering, not those who were conveniently born taller or wealthier than most.

I learned early on that professional athletes and other celebrities are really just normal, flawed people who happen to have benefitted from a rare combination of luck and talent. There is no doubt that most of them are very good at what they do, and probably work very hard at certain times, but I have never been under the illusion that they are somehow better or happier than most of the more anonymous people I have met in my life. It seems that the only real difference lies in the fact that normal people don’t have a vicious pack of reporters and pundits destroying them in the national media whenever they happen to get in trouble. Such is the price of fame in 2010.

The problem is that until recently, I have been able to remove the cold reality of normal life and human nature from my blind appreciation of professional sports. I used to be able to forget that my favorite baseball players were probably on steroids or that many of the players on my favorite football team were most likely not the kind of guys I would want my little sister to go on a date with. I knew these things from the start but at least I could suspend my criticism long enough to escape into the excitement of the competition for a few hours.

I fear that I no longer have this luxury anymore, as professional sports continue to become just another tabloid media-covered minefield. Thankfully, I still believe that professional cycling has one of the highest ratios of “good guys” to “bad guys” but it’s been a long time since I thought everyone who could ride a bike fast was a decent person. With that said, I think I’d be pretty cool with my little sister dating a bike racer, especially considering my prior hope that she would hook up with a professional golfer. Yeah…not so keen on the golf guys anymore.

In an effort to maintain this depressing theme, as well as the portrayal of cyclists as a pretty decent group of people to root for, please find the following 2009/2010 sports stories that have broken down the wall between the joy of entertainment and cruelty of life below. I have tried to limit these to one sentence because this stuff should not really be news to anyone at this point.

Football - Chris Henry died after falling off the back of a pick-up truck being driven by his wife, with whom he was arguing at the time of the accident.

Basketball - Gilbert Arenas was convicted of felony gun possession charges after displaying three firearms in the Washington Wizards locker room, then verbally challenging Javaris Crittenden, with whom he had gotten into an argument over gambling debts.

Baseball - Mark McGwire finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs during his career, including the year that he broke the homerun records of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris.

Tennis - Serena Williams was fined a record $83,500 for verbally assaulting a line official at the U.S. Open who later claimed that she feared for her life.

Soccer – John Terry, captain of the English national team, has been accused of having an affair with the wife of a former friend and teammate.

Golf - Tiger Woods got caught with his pants on the ground many, many times.

Hockey – I can’t think of many scandalous hockey stories right now but I’m pretty sure there are toothless maniacs getting into trouble somewhere.

Yeesh. There are obviously many more examples of scandalous behavior among many other athletes in many other sports but again, this should not be a surprise to anyone. At least John Edwards and Charlie Sheen don’t play sports for a living. Woo Hoo!