More than 600 foreign journalists from every corner of the globe flew to Israel last week, but unlike other mass invasions of the international press, it had nothing to do with war or diplomacy.
They were in Jerusalem to cover the first leg of the Giro d’Italia, one of the cycling world’s top three Grand Tours, along with the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. It was the first time that any segment of the three Grand Tours has taken place outside Europe, and the first time an Israeli team has taken part in the Giro.
Known as the “Big Start,” the Israeli segment, from May 4-6, was by far the most prestigious sporting event in the country’s history.
The timing, just days prior to the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding according to the secular calendar, amounted to a public relations coup at a time when many around the world are trying to vilify and delegitimize Israel. In fact, pro-Palestinian activists accused the Israeli government of “sports-washing” — attempting to deflect the world’s attention away from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and weekly Palestinian “March of Return” demonstrations along the Gaza border.
Late last year, 120 pro-Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, sports clubs and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists pleaded with the Giro’s administrators not to hold the event in Israel. Doing so “will both cover up Israel’s military occupation and discrimination against Palestinians and increase Israel’s sense of impunity, encouraging continued denial of Palestinians’ U.N.-stipulated rights,” the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP) wrote in a statement.
Israeli government officials and the Giro’s Israeli organizers rejected these accusations and expressed hope that the race would spur a wave of tourism and goodwill toward Israel.
The officials readily acknowledged that Israel, a small arid country with a fledgling bike culture, was an unlikely place to host a cycling Grand Tour.
“This project has been created against all odds,” Ran Margaliot, co-founder of Israel’s professional team, the Israel Cycling Academy (ICA), told reporters at a press briefing. “It’s not normal to have pro-cycling in Israel. Not even regular cycling.”
Despite the presence of many recreational bicycle riders, cycling has long been considered an amateur sport in Israel. That changed in 2015 when Margaliot and businessman Ron Baron launched the ICA, Israel’s first-ever professional cycling team. Its goal was to enable the country’s best cyclists to compete in the international arena. Less than three years later, Israel was invited to compete in the Giro.
The team could not have achieved its goals without the financial backing and moral support of Sylvan Adams, a Canadian billionaire and competitive cyclist who made aliyah in 2016. The Big Start cost $33 million, most of it paid for by Adams. It was Adams who lobbied Mauro Vegni, the Giro’s director, to bring a segment of the race to Israel.
“I don’t think he thought I was being serious,” Adams said of their meeting in Italy two years ago. “I asked him to come to Israel, and he saw a beautiful country with good roads, with a cycling culture. He saw that Israel is democratic, open, tolerant, free and safe.”
Adams, 58, a physically fit man with white hair whose eyes sparkle with enthusiasm when he talks about Israel and cycling, recalled that Vegni began to mull the idea of expanding the “Giro brand” outside Europe.
“I asked the Giro director to come to Israel, and he saw a beautiful country with good roads, with a cycling culture. He saw that Israel is democratic, open, tolerant, free and safe.” — Sylvan Adams
“It took a whole year of negotiations,” Adams said of the deal, which the two men sealed a year ago.
The businessman said nearly 1 billion people watched the Giro last year, so hosting its first leg in Israel “is like inviting 1 billion visitors to Israel. We’re inviting them to know us better. To see our beautiful country and our warmth. They will almost certainly be surprised and impressed. This is not what they were expecting.”
Adams said few people outside Israel realize that nearly 21 percent of Israeli citizens are Arab. “There are Arabs in the [Israel Defense Forces], Arab judges, including one serving on the Supreme Court. There are Arab policemen and Arab ambassadors,” he said.
Adams, who has a daughter living in Los Angeles and a second about to move to L.A., said he lobbied to start the Giro in Israel for three reasons: to get Israelis excited about cycling, to showcase Israel as a tourist destination and to bring top Israeli athletes to the Grand Tour.
“This is the first time we have two horses in the race,” he said, referring to the two Israeli cyclists, Guy Sagiv and Guy Niv, who earned a place on the team’s international roster of Giro cyclists.
Prior to the race, Israeli Tourism Minister Director-General Amir Halevi predicted that it would immediately inject “tens of millions” of shekels into the local economy and that the media exposure would lead to record levels of incoming tourism in the future.
Some 3.6 million tourists visited Israel in 2017, a 25 percent increase over 2016. Every 100,000 additional tourists leads to the creation of 4,000 direct jobs and 3,700 indirect jobs, according to the tourism ministry.
The Giro provided the ministry with the impetus to promote Israel as a sports tourism destination, a new marketing angle for a country known for its history, holy sites and culture.
“Given that Israel is a relatively small country, hikers and bikers can enjoy the experience of desert, mountains, valleys, urban terrain and more, all within a few hours’ distance from each other covering the entire country,” the ministry said in a press release.
For members of the ICA, the Giro was less about promoting tourism than about drawing Israelis to recreational and competitive cycling.
Days before the Big Start, the Tel Aviv municipality announced that it is building the Sylvan Adams Velodrome, the Middle East’s most state-of-the-art indoor cycling center, according to the city. Once completed, it will meet Olympic standards. Adams hopes the 2021 World Junior Championships for track cycling will take place at the velodrome.
Although there were many memorable moments just prior and during the race, the sight of cyclists from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates riding through the streets of Israel filled Israelis with pride and the hope that peace with its neighbors might just be possible. Many shared photos of the teams on social media.
The day before the start of the race, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center, hosted participants of the Israel Cycling Academy and leadership of the Giro d’Italia at an event posthumously bestowing Commemorative Citizenship of the State of Israel on the late Gino Bartali, a three-time Giro d’Italia champion who helped save hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust.
In 2013, Yad Vashem recognized Bartali as a Righteous Among the Nations. His name is engraved on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations on the Mount of Remembrance. A devout Catholic, Bartali acted as a courier for the Italian resistance against the Nazis and distributed forged documents. A modest man, he refused to speak about his deeds.
Looking back on the week, Baron called the Giro Big Start “the biggest present we can give Israel for its 70th birthday. It is a miracle, and so is this team.”
Michele Chabin is an award-winning journalist who reports from Jerusalem.