Giro d‘Italia in Israel: Far more than a cycling race

The second stage of the Giro d’Italia bicycle race found riders navigating the coastal plain of Israel. They began in Haifa and rode next to the ancient Crusader city of Acre, then headed south, passing Zichron Ya’acov to finish in Tel Aviv. It was 167 km. of easy terrain. The official site of the race described the main obstacles as “roundabouts, traffic islands and sometimes speed bumps.”

On Sunday, the riders where they zipped passed Sde Boker and the Nabatean city of Avdat, taking in the vistas of the Mitzpe Ramon crater along the way.

Be the first to know –

Traveling outside of Europe is a first in the 101-year history of the Giro d’Italia. Israeli-Canadian philanthropist Sylvan Adams, co-owner of Israel’s professional Israel Cycling Academy team, played the key role in bringing the competition to Jerusalem. He said he sought to bring the race to Israel to show how beautiful the country is to the billion television viewers who watch cycling.

“Unlike a soccer match or a basketball game, which takes place inside a stadium, cycling takes place outdoors. So for three days, with 16 hours of TV coverage starting in Jerusalem, our beautiful and important national capital, and then going from Acre in the North all the way down to Eilat, they will literally see all the country,” Adams told The Jerusalem Post.

The coverage of the cycling was only one of many positive outcomes. The attendance of UAE Team Emirates and Bahrain-Meridas was another. Although the riders from these teams are not from the Gulf states, their participation was symbolic. It shows that sports can be a form of diplomacy, as well as a way to put Israel on the map as a place removed from news of the conflict that generally drowns out other coverage.

That doesn’t mean the conflict was entirely ignored. The Guardian noted that Israel was “one of the most contested territories in the world” and said the race took place on a “complex political landscape” overshadowed by violence in Gaza. In general, the unprecedented sporting event appears to have emerged unscathed by political controversy. No boycotts or protests interdicted the riders. This is a testament to the work of the organizers and likely symbolic of the overall change in attitudes toward Israel globally.

However, there is still a lot of work to do. Bringing international sporting events to Israel is a positive step, and there should be attempts to expand beyond the success of the Giro d’Italia. Too often, Israeli athletes have been kept from international competitions.

In April, a court in Tunis banned four Israeli athletes from a Taekwondo event. An Israeli Judo team was banned from competing with its flag in Abu Dhabi in October 2017. Now the Tunisia bid for the 2022 Youth Olympics has been stopped because the country banned Israeli athletes.

“After Tunisia banned Israeli athletes from participating in a Taekwondo event, the International Olympic Committee has frozen all s with the local National Olympic Committee with regard to its candidature,” IOC president Thomas Bach said last week.

This is a positive development and shows that world sports organizations are taking seriously the attempt by some countries to prevent the participation of Israeli athletes. Here again Israel has a chance to step up and invite athletes from around the world – including those countries which have sought to ban Israelis – to show that Israel is on the map of international sports and that the country will be a symbol of openness rather than closing itself off.

For many years Israel advocates have sought to sell an image of “brand Israel” that differs from the headlines about conflict and politics. This has only been partially successful. The real success can be found in Israel actually living up to the concept of changing its brand.

That means not just talking about hi-tech or cherry tomatoes, but actually hosting successfully international events and competitions which lend themselves to reporting that is not conflict-based. The Giro d’Italia was a phenomenal success. The question in Jerusalem should be how to follow it up and build on it.