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Travel: Ahead of the FIFA World Cup, Qatar's Newly Unveiled Olympic Museum Melds Ancient and Modern Sport

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Qatar may be tiny, but its ambitions are Herculean when it comes to sports. Though Doha, the capital, has hosted one-off competitions since the 1970s, the Persian Gulf hub didn't land its first major multi-sport event until 2006: the Asian Games (XV Asiad), where 45 nations competed in 424 events across 39 sports. Those games marked a turning point for the country, which views its participation in international sporting events as proof of its global ascendancy.

And Qatar has been on a building and infrastructure tear ever since it won the bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2010. Home to 2.8 million people, the nation expects more than a million visitors to flood the nation for the event this November. It’s a race against the clock to complete a plethora of new development: a gleaming subway system, eight ultramodern soccer stadiums (including a fully demountable, 40,000-seat arena constructed from 974 shipping containers), and 40-plus public sculptures by some of the biggest names in contemporary art. The crown jewel, however, is the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum, which opened on March 31, during the week the city held the World Cup Draw.

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At 204,000 square feet it’s one of the largest sports museums on the planet, and the first Arab institution to join the Olympic Museums Network, which includes locations throughout Europe and Asia, and the United States' Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs. Qatar is also the first Arab country to host the World Cup—an honor that has not come without controversy due to its anti-LGBTQ laws and treatment of migrant workers.

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Joan Sibina, the Spanish architect behind the Gaudí Centre in Reus, Catalonia, designed the museum as two separate structures: The main building follows the arc of the historic Khalifa International Stadium, to which it is anchored. Attached is a spiraled access building inspired by the Olympic rings—which of course glow blue, yellow, white, green, and red at night. The museum entrance looks like a running track, and decorative mashrabiya, or Islamic-style latticework, provides shade on hot days. The museum is split into seven sections, starting with the history of sport and journeying from the eighth century B.C. to present day.

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State-of-the-art displays incorporate splashy audio-visual components and interactive digital simulations throughout. There’s a virtual archery setup, for instance, where you can practice shooting arrows like an ancient Greek. Other highlights include a reconstructed Roman racing chariot, a penny-farthing bicycle from 1882, and wooden clubs for pahlevani, an ancient Iranian ritual played in an octagonal pit surrounded by spectators. One of the more prized possessions is a soccer ball from England’s 1888 FA Cup Final, where West Bromwich Albion beat Preston North End 2-1.

A dramatically lit gallery spotlights every torch from the Summer and Winter Olympic Games from 1936 onward; another space is devoted to commemorative Olympic paraphernalia including programs, pennants, and quirkier items like stereoscopic viewing glasses (Helsinki, 1952) and a beer stein (Sarajevo, 1984). One of the buzziest exhibits—the kind that museumgoers queue up to photograph—showcases a boxing glove signed by Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, from the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, where the heavyweight champion won gold.

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The museum’s Hall of Athletes profiles 90 trailblazers, each with a dedicated display case and sporting mementos. Some are household names like Brady and Bolt; others—like Japanese sumo wrestler Taiho Koki, French windsurfer Antoine Albeau, and American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad—are heroes within their niche. Paralympians make appearances, too: A section devoted to Swiss cyclist Heinz Frei features his Beijing 2008 racing wheelchair.

Olympic artifacts displayed at the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum © Qatar Museums Olympic artifacts displayed at the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum

Spread over three floors, the hall is spacious enough to accommodate life-size artifacts—notably a Formula 1 race car and the bobsled used by the Jamaican team at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. (Yes, the one that the movie Cool Runnings was based on.) Many are autographed, including a baseball bat from Babe Ruth, boxing glove from Manny Pacquaio, the soccer ball used by Brazilian forward Pelé to score the 1,000th goal of his career, and the tennis racquet Steffi Graf swung at the French Open in 1999 when she beat longstanding rival Monica Seles in the semi-finals.

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While most of the museum focuses on global sports culture, the section on Qatar’s own victories is not to be missed. In addition to telling the story behind the country’s first gold medals (won by weightlifter Fares El Bakh and high-jumper Mutaz Barshim at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics), it digs into traditional Qatari sports like falconry and pearl diving; pearls were one of Qatar’s primary exports until the 1950s when oil and gas took over. Racing of all stripes—horse, camel, saluki—is also popular here, and recent years have seen a revival of djerid and other centuries-old horse games wielding swords and javelins.

Entertaining as it is to learn about dromedary sprints or ogle a basketball signed by the Dream Team, the museum saves the best for last. An Activation Zone features 18 interactive stations designed to measure one’s “physical literacy” across five key pillars: fortitude (concentration, endurance, and stamina), vitality (strength and power), collaboration (teamwork and cooperation skills), control (skill, balance, and coordination), and quickness (reactions and speed). Visitors strap on a 3-2-1 wristband and wander through six spaces inspired by familiar Qatari environs. In the “park” setting, a hand cycle assesses one’s endurance—seeing how far you can pedal in 30 seconds. At the “beach,” a paddle board simulation measures core body control. In the “desert,” you test your upper body strength by pushing the back half of a Jeep out of faux sand.

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The museum's Activation Zone, where visitors can test and compare their own physical stamina © Qatar Museums The museum's Activation Zone, where visitors can test and compare their own physical stamina

At the end of the visit, you can swipe the wristband at a kiosk to collect your individualized profile. Beyond logging your best scores from each station, it compares your physical literacy to other museumgoers of the same age. It even suggests sports it thinks you would excel at and links to an app that makes recommendations for local clubs, coaches, and facilities offering those activities.

Soccer legend David Beckham, who visited the museum shortly before its opening, said the Activation Zone was his favorite part. The stations certainly make for good people watching, even for those who don't want to participate, as men in thobes and ghutras test their hand strength by white knuckling the handlebars of a pseudo-motorcycle and entire families leap into the air during simulated wave jumps.

If nothing else, the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum takes the gold for creativity.

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