Monday, 7 May 2018

Israel and Bike Racing. A New Love Affair.

The second greatest bike race was replete with significance in 2018.
One man deservedly garnered praise for bringing the Giro d’Italia, a cycling race with a 110-year history, to Israel, the first time it has started outside of Europe.
Sylvan Adams is an Israeli-Canadian real estate investor with a passion for cycling. Adams is a man with a dream. He dreamed as he raced in long distance road races of having an Israeli team competing in the major cycling events and he created an ambitious plan. He funded the Israel Cycling Academy putting together a logistics team and recruiting some of the prominent professional racers as well as searching out promising young Israeli cyclists. And then he went one step further. He went to the organizers of the famous Giro d’Italia, second only to the Tour de France, with an offer they couldn’t refuse. He gave them a huge sponsorship deal, some say to the tune of $20 million, on condition they organize the ‘Big Start’ of the event in Israel. That is how, on May 4, 2018, the world’s best riders and race teams lined up for the twisting eight kilometer individual time trial prologue through the streets of Israel’s capital, Jerusalem.

Tourists in Rome, where the Giro traditionally ends, frequently visit the Arch of Titus located in the Roman Forum to view the relief panels depicting the Roman rape of Jerusalem just over two thousand years ago. Jews that were not slaughtered were dragged into captivity and slavery in Rome. Some were fed to wild animals as entertainment for the masses in the Colosseum. The treasures of the destroyed Jewish Temple were pillaged and brought in triumph to Rome. The panels of the famous arch show “The Spoils of Jerusalem” with Jewish captives and some of the treasures, particularly the heavy gold menorah that lit the temple, a symbol that has become the national symbol of the modern Jewish State, being carried in triumphant procession.
Romans are a proud people. One taxi driver in Rome boasted to me about his family history. He said he was so Roman that he could trace his heritage back to the Roman days in Jerusalem. A wild claim, but one that is typically Roman.
Following the pillage of Jerusalem by Titus there was a Jewish Revolt that defied the Romans but Emperor Hadrian put down the resistance with overwhelming force and cruelty and as a final insult he renamed ancient Israel “Syria Palaestina.”
Now, thanks to Sylvan Adams, the Roman road led back to Jerusalem and Stage One of the Giro d’Italia.
The link between the Giro and the Jewish State is not new. It was reflected in a special ceremony in which Italy’s greatest cyclist was honored. Gino Bartali won the Giro three times, straddling World War Two between his victories. He also won two Tour de France events in the same vein. But it was his courageous covert activities during the war that made him a hero to Jews. Risking his life, he helped rescue hundreds of Jews from the ravages of the Holocaust by using his bike and his fame to courier messages and documents across Nazi occupied Italy to the underground who were smuggling Jews to safety in Palestine, now Israel. Many of the survivors and their children paid tribute to Bartali at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial site that honors “the righteous among nations.”  Many of the Giro organizers and riders attended. Some rode through a special 14 km biking trail through a forest by Jerusalem named in Bartali’s honor.
And so Italy and the Giro came full circle with Israel, Jerusalem, and the Jewish people in the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia. Enthusiastic crowds lined the route. New to the world of professional road race cycling, Israelis took the sport to their hearts as the 179 riders set out on the following day’s stage leading them 169 km from Haifa to Akko, the ancient Roman port of Caesarea, before finishing between Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
It was during this stage that another cycling miracle occurred when the Israeli team riders began to appear prominently at the head of the field. Guillaume Boivin narrowly lost the intermediate hill stage in Zichron Yaakov. But the miracle burst into force on the gruelling Stage 3, the 229 km testing ride from Beer Sheba through the Negev desert to Eilat. The breakaway group of three included Boivin, riding for the Israeli team, who forced himself to victory in the intermediate sprint stages. The leading trio were caught by the main group just 5km from the finish line after being out in front for over 220 km.

The race moved to Italy, but it has left behind an Israel that is enthused about professional cycling and a global viewing audience thrilled with the race and the breath-taking sights that the amazing cameramen have taken from their seats on the back of motorbikes and from the air in their helicopters.
The Giro will surely give a boost to Israeli tourism. It as a positive rebuttal to the fraudulent anti-Israel BDS narrative that tries to cast a stigma on Israel as an oppressive, racist, country. Instead viewers saw the real diverse Israel with its wonderful churches, temples, and mosques, Arabs, Christians, Bahai, Druze, and Bedouin.
The Giro opened Israel to a billion people who were seeing Israel, many for the first time, beyond the conflict.
As a delighted Sylvan Adams put it, “Israel has already won this race, as it afforded hundreds of millions of TV spectators to see our beautiful country, and feel the warmth of our people, bearing witness that Israel is a diverse, open and free country. This was a Giro d’Israel, a three-day tour around our special country. I could say that Israel found the Giro, but the Giro also found Israel.”

Barry Shaw is the Senior Associate for Public Diplomacy at the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.  He is the author of BDS for IDIOTS, a former marathon runner, and an admirer of road race cyclists.

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