Picture the Champs Elysées in Paris in late July. The crowds line the wide boulevard as far as the eye can see, and a long rainbow of helmets stretches round the corner under the vast shadows of the Arc de Triomphe. Leaning into the curve at improbable angles, a speck or two shoot off in the crash barriers, sparks before the fire. On the long straight, each rider straining to keep the wheel in front, and the peloton comes back together. As one lap turns into another, this giant spear-headed fish starts to madden, fleeing an imaginary harpoon, flailing and fighting as the riders duck and dive for position. On the final straight, fuelled by the explosion of noise from the crowd, it bursts into flame. The sparks stand on their pedals and dart around for the right wind to follow – some fade into the flame, their work done, others may collide and fall, and those remaining hope to fly off into the stars.
This is the aspirational scenario for Doha Corniche, sun-drenched and sand-blown Champs-Elysées on the emerald sea, for the finale of the Tour of Qatar, hunting ground for the sprinting elite, and where the early blows are struck in the professional cycling season.
No-one prepared me for the silence. As the peloton hauled its way up and down under the palm trees, barely a word was spoken. With each lap, the concentration on the riders’ faces and the strain in their muscles intensified as the spring wound up. All I could hear was the whirr of the chainwheels and the rush of the wind, and a momentary silence rolling away down the road.
Nor, in Paris, would I be able to stand on the finish line, my camera lens thrust over the white paint on the tarmac, looking into the commentary box. Walking around in my lycra shorts had made me feel like I was turning up to high tea in my underpants, and I was relieved when a few other cyclists began to lean their bicycles on the railings and shout into the road. The atmosphere gradually built, and the adrenalin began to flow – clearly it will take a while to reproduce the Champs Elysées here – but to witness a sprint finish at close quarters was as electrifying as I had hoped.
The Tour of Qatar is not the only sporting event happening in Qatar. In fact, there are more than I can keep track of – there are global sailing, tennis, athletics, driving, handball competitions all happening in a short space of time: Qatar is now a prolific host of high-profile international sporting events, and a sought-after investor in sports teams and tournaments. Qatar’s recent National Sports Day was a public holiday, a traditional day of games and glory as ancient Olympians would have known.
Honouring the occasion at our site office in the desert, I consumed fries and a club sandwich at my desk and endeavoured to fill my coffee breaks with occasional nightmares about past school sports days. Even the roads respected Sports Day, the only day I had seen them running free, as if playing themselves. Clearly, if Qatar is serious about sport, health, and a more attractive urban environment for Doha, much deeper solutions are required, starting with the sort of long-term sacrifices many cities have made for public and non-motorised transport over private cars.
Racked with guilt from my no-show on National Sports Day, I was persuaded to go dragon boating. I imagined that it would involve fire, flying, impenetrable scales, a close brush with death in treacherous waters, and a glorious redemption with a spear to the vulnerable underbelly as the dragon draws breath for his final onslaught. Needless to say, it is in fact much like rowing, only simpler.
The process of learning a new skill, and possibly my Sports Day guilt, made me ask, why do we play sport? Games are for children, right? Riding the dragon’s back as I was, beating the poor creature through the water so inelegantly, I began to wonder how foolish I was. However, as the dragon tired, I found myself returning to technicalities I was familiar with: discovering that the same metronome keeping a peloton riding inches from each others’ wheels also makes a longboat glide through the water. Similarly, the same precise awareness and control of dynamics that a court player will use to strike the ball is useful to a rower placing a paddle.
Surely it is no coincidence that life and work are sometimes referred to as a game, for sport teaches us to know our body and mind – to gauge our limits and pace our efforts, to know false hunger and real hunger, to shrug off defeat, and to know how long and hard a skill is won. And perhaps sport has lessons for society and economy as well – in a boat or in a peloton, everyone gets to the finish line quicker and enjoys it more if they pull together, look out for the weaker riders or rowers, take the time to support, educate and train them.
Still feeling like I was condemned to physical education purgatory for my Sports Day sleight, I turned up to a squash club, to find a former Egyptian national player training – he could have wiped the floor with me and still not have cleaned all the corners. Instead he gave me a few tips and enthused about the game, and I stayed to watch his deft flicks and dancing feet, the time-old magic of observing a craftsman who had truly mastered his art.
Perhaps you think you’ve never been very good at sport. Perhaps you’re too busy or prefer other skills. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience. Sport is certainly not the only skill or art worth knowing, and most of us will never sprint down the Corniche or play squash for our country – but, like a car that seizes up when it is not used, our bodies are designed to be active, every day of our lives. And there are more sports out there than most of us will ever have the chance to play, and more reasons to enjoy each one than we will ever know. So go on, grow up: explore outdoors, learn something new, play a game.