Yalla Giro d’Italia!
This weekend marks the first time a Grand Tour will start in the Middle East. The 101st edition of the Giro d´Italia will begin in Jerusalem with three stages in Israel. To understand how this Grande Partenza has been forged we need to focus our attention on the Israel Cycling Team and in particular one of its owners, Sylvan Adams.
Born in Canada, Adams is a businessman but also a cycling enthusiast. His business card reads: “Self-designated ambassador of Israel”. Adams decided to leave the family property business started by his father, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor, to dedicate his life to philanthropy.
He moved from his home town of Montreal to Tel Aviv with the ambition of turning the city into the Amsterdam of Middle East. As the main cycling promoter in the country, he worked with the city council in Tel Aviv to build the first velodrome of the region, and was also involved in the creation of bicycle lanes around the city. In his luxury beachside apartment he has created an altitude tent and a studio for performance tests for professional cyclists.
After achieving the status of UCI Continental team in 2017, the goal for the Israel Cycling Academy was to participate in a Grand Tour in 2018. In December 2016, Adams revealed that he was working towards bringing the start of the Giro d’Italia to Jerusalem. Naturally, at the time he preferred to be discreet about the subject, yet Adams already had in mind how the three stages could fit together, and was excited to share the details of his route.
His vision is that this start of the Giro will be a great incentive for the promotion of cycling in Israel, but it’s just one part of a bigger project. “We believe in the sport as an alternative education; a school for the younger ones. Our goal is to have 10,000 youngsters riding their bikes and we know that the Giro d’Italia will be a great inspiration for them. We are more than a team; this is just part of the project, to be a promotional platform for cycling in Israel,” says Ran Margaliot, manager of the team.
“We want to internationally project Israel. This country is very different from what you see in the media. It’s not only about conflict and bombs. We want to tell the story you can´t see on television and for that we have ambassadors from seventeen different nationalities,” adds Adams.
In total 24 riders, five of them from Israel plus other experienced riders such as Rubén Plaza, Ben Hermans, Guillaume Boivin and Zak Dempster, were designated Peace Ambassadors by the Peres Center for Peace. Their motto is #YallaAcademy. Yalla is an expression of the Arabic language that has been adopted by the modern Hebrew as part of its slang. It’s an emblem of their fight to tear down borders and inspire peace.
The idea of a non-profit cycling team came from Israeli businessman Ron Baron, during one of his training rides with Margaliot, a former professional cyclist who rode in Alberto Contador’s Saxo-Bank team in 2011 and 2012. A cycling enthusiast, Baron saw the need to create a team, not only to take Israelí cycling to the elite of professional sport, but to promote cycling inside his own country.
Currently, the Israeli Cycling Federation has 3,000 members and 1.5 million people practice cycling every two or three days. Margaliot points out that the 2011 Saxo Bank team camp in Israel with Alberto Contador, and the organization of supporting events, was a key factor in the surge of the sport in Israel. Only in the last two years have Israelis been able to watch the Tour de France on television. This year also the Giro d’Italia will be broadcasted.
The team has a budget of 6 million euros, 95% of which comes from Baron and Adams. De Rosa, Selle Italia, Vision, Nalini, Oakley and Skins are some of the team’s sponsors. “Our budget is four times the Israeli federation’s budget, including races and schools. This shows a huge imbalance,” explains Margaliot. “If we want to be honest with ourselves, if we want to promote cycling among the youngsters, how many of them are we actually helping? With the budget that we have we could change the lives of thousands of them”. That is the reason why Israel Cycling Team doesn’t aspire to become a World Tour Team in the future, but to become a school. “We strongly believe in the power of cycling to generate movement and our goal is to be an academy that doesn’t necessarily have a professional or continental team.”
The promotion of Israel is also an important part of the Cycling Academy project. “Let’s not mix politics with sports,” says Adams. Although the team was born in 2015, it was not until 2017 that Israel got involved to promote the country. The major challenge is to save the external image of the country due to the Arab-Isaeli conflict since the creation of the State of Israel in 1947. According to a 2013 BBC survey, covering respondents in 22 countries, the United States is the only western country with a favourable opinion about Israel.
“We want to promote the country beyond politics,” says Margaliot. However, this is not an easy task. The team dreamed about the Turkish Champion, Ahmet Örken, being the first rider to take the start of the Giro d´Italia, to send a message of peace to the world. But the growing tension in the Middle East after President Trump announced the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, forced Örken to cancel his contract with the team, quoting, “the effect that the recent events in the Middle East had on me and my family”. And since the announcement of the start of the Giro in Israel, more than 100 human-rights associations and organizations from all over the world have protested against the event.
The conflict does not stop there. After the presentation of the Giro d’Italia, in Milan in September, the Israeli Ministers of Sports and Tourism protested against the denomination of “Jerusalem West” for the first stage of the race. The government suggested that this could imply the non-acceptance of the annexation of East Jerusalem to Israel, based in the Law of Jerusalem, something that is considered null and without international legal effect, and that Israel has imposed by force to Palestine since 1967.
“In Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, there is no east or west. There is one unified Jerusalem,” read a government statement, going on to threaten that if the wording did not change, “the Israeli government will not be a partner in the event.”
The response by RCS was immediate. The denomination of Jerusalem West was used, “due to the fact that the race will take place logistically in that area of the city.” and added, “that particular wording (was) devoid of any political value”. The reference to Jerusalem West was immediately removed from any material related to the Giro d’Italia.
In a sport where globalization goes hand in hand with money, the intentions of the Israeli team and the promoters of cycling in Israel are good. This fast-growing project is a clear example of the Israeli “start-up” mentality. With a population of only 8.5 million, in recent years Israel has developed more high-tech start-ups than all of Europe. Finally we see a project that is not about business but about sport.
Unfortunately, politics and sport are already mixed.