World Cup chance to open minds, says US tennis icon Billie Jean King

The champion’s remarks come amid growing criticism over Qatar’s hosting of the major sporting event.

US tennis trailblazer Billie Jean King has backed Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, describing it as an opportunity to open minds, the sports icon told Reuters on Wednesday.

King, who championed gender equality in the sports world, said the major tournament can serve as “a power for good”. 

The tennis champion founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973 to ensure the equal participation of women in professional sports. For years, Doha has hosted the Qatar Total Open, a WTA tour event.

The 78-year-old noted that holding the WTA finals in the Gulf state has enabled the participation of women players.

“We were there [for] four or five years and I think it helped,” said King, also winner of 12 major Grand Slam singles titles.

King’s remarks come amid growing criticism of Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup which has cited its human rights record regarding migrant workers and the LGBTQ community.

The tennis champion herself is a prominent LGBTQ activist and had received the Presidential Medal of Freedom award in 2009 for her activism.

Responding to a press question over hosting her Billie Jean Cup finals in Qatar, King said she “probably would be” given that the WTA had taken place in the Gulf state.

“I get a lot of different people coming to me saying ‘why would you play there the way they treat women?’’ she said.

King added that she believes it would be “important to show up and be an influencer.

“I think it’s delicate, no question. But I think it’s important to go if you get the opportunity and everything else fits too, not just go there for money or whatever,” she said.

King made history in 1973 when she triumphed over former number 1-ranked tennis player Bobby Riggs in what was widely known as the “Battle of the Sexes”. The women’s champion challenged Riggs to dismiss his view of women’s games as being inferior to men.

The match garnered 50 million TV watchers in the US alone and a total of 90 million people worldwide, becoming “one of the most watched televised sporting events of all time”.

‘Ferocious campaign’

Since Qatar was awarded hosting rights for the first-ever FIFA World Cup in the region, the topic of how the Gulf state is expected to treat the LGBTQ+ community has been a hot topic in Western media.

Last month, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani slammed what he described as “ferocious” attacks levelled at the Gulf state.

“Since we won the honour of hosting the World Cup, Qatar has faced an unprecedented campaign that no other host nation has received. And we had handled it at first in good faith while considering some of the criticism positive and beneficial,” Sheikh Tamim told the Shura Council.

Despite the ongoing criticism, officials across the board have maintained that everyone is welcome, though urged fans to be respectful of the country’s culture and traditions.

More recently, Nasser Al Khater, World Cup Qatar 2022 CEO, spoke to Sky News about the matter, insisting that no one will face discrimination during the 29-day tournament.

“At the end of the day, as long as you don’t do anything that harms other people, if you’re not destroying public property, as long as you’re behaving in a way that’s not harmful, then everybody’s welcome and you have nothing to worry about,” said Al Khater.

In May, when asked about the attendance of members of the LGBTQ community at the World Cup, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani said “everybody is welcome in Doha”.

“We do not stop anybody from coming to Doha with any different backgrounds, any different beliefs, Qatar is a very welcoming country,” the amir told the press during his visit to Berlin.

Sheikh Tamim added that the country already welcomes “millions” of visitors and the World Cup serves as “a great opportunity” for people all over the world to experience the Qatari culture.

“We welcome everybody, but also we expect and we want people to respect our culture,” said the Qatari leader.

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