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The Outer Line: Giro comes to Israel during tumultuous times

By Spencer Martin and Steve Maxwell • Updated
Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

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The Giro d’Italia surprised the cycling world last year when it confirmed that the 2018 race’s “Grande Partenza” would be held in Jerusalem, with the first three stages of the race taking place in Israel. This was a significant milestone — not only would it mark the first time that the Giro had started outside of Europe, but it would also be one of the largest international sporting events ever to take place in Israel. RCS MediaGroup, the owner of the Giro d’Italia, reportedly signed a deal worth 10 million euros allowing Israel to host the first three stages of the event.

As might be expected, the decision to start the Giro in one of the most politically charged and divisive cities on the planet did not come without controversy. Numerous human rights organizations protested the decision, while a senior Palestinian official accused the organizers of the Giro d’Italia of being “complicit in Israel’s military occupation.” There was even push back and call for a boycott from within the cycling community. At the same, the Israeli government invited Pope Francis to come to Jerusalem to wave the start flag.

RCS must have anticipated at least some controversy when it made the decision, and the various protests created significant headwinds for the Giro’s intercontinental vision. Unfortunately, the situation in Israel has worsened since the decision was made last August. The embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing an ever-widening corruption investigation, while media coverage and protests intensify over the handling of Palestinian protests at the Israeli/Gaza strip barrier. Two weeks prior to the start of the Giro, full-color pictures on the front page of The New York Times depicted the conflict between heavily-armed Israeli security forces and civilian Palestinian protesters. In another highly publicized development, the Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman decided to back out of a major award ceremony meant to honor her in Jerusalem, citing distress over the “recent events” in Israel.

There has been a long history of major events, celebrities, and international companies steering clear of hosting events in Israel. It is difficult to know how many unrequited offers the Israeli government has made to major sporting events, but there is a long-documented history of musical artists avoiding or canceling concerts in the region. Another recent high-profile example was the New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde canceling a planned concert in Tel Aviv, following an online campaign by activists opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. To further complicate the issue, those who called for her to boycott were then sued by a group on behalf of Israeli teenagers who had purchased tickets for the concert. This was made possible by a controversial new law that allows civil litigation by anyone who can claim economic harm from a boycott against Israel, any of its institutions, or an area under Israeli control.

Now, a few days before the event kicks off, the situation has been further complicated by even more escalating tension at the Gaza/Israel border. A week before the opening stage in Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinian protesters urged on by a leader of Hamas stormed the Gaza security barrier and attempted to cross into Israel. Israeli troops responded with lethal force, killing several people and wounding hundreds, according to Gaza health officials. The protests seem to be building in intensity toward May 14, which will mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of Israel. If the situation continues to escalate, the race organizers and the government could be caught in a very difficult spot. With no time to make alternate plans, the race management is headed into unknown territory and will have to deal impromptu with any major public relations and security concerns that arise.

An overriding mission for a professional sports event should be to showcase the sport favorably and appeal to the largest possible audience. A specific objective of cycling’s international federation (the UCI) over the past several years has been the expansion and internationalization of the pro cycling — an attempt to build and grow new events in new parts of the world, an opportunity to showcase local teams, facilities and culture, and to introduce pro racing to a new and wider audience. In taking its race to Israel, RCS presumably weighed its options, evaluated the financial equation, and came away with the conclusion that starting their race in Jerusalem would help accomplish that general mission.

Based on recent grand tour events, RCS is being well-compensated to deliver this media coverage and credibility. Tourism Ireland paid RCS a fee of roughly 5 million euros to host the first three stages of the 2014 Giro. If reports are accurate, RCS will be receiving double this fee for the 2018 edition. And other start cities or regions for both the Giro and the Tour de France seem to have gotten that opportunity and publicity for considerably lower payments. These host fees, along with the “in-kind” value expected from the host city — police assistance, volunteers, support facilities, and so on — have put financial strain on some of the former European host cities. Indeed, such strains have even led to lawsuits and unpaid bills between host cities and race organizations. However, the opportunity to take its race to a region that is receptive to the event and ability to pay the high fees probably made the offer quite attractive to RCS.

From the local perspective, Jerusalem and Israel have gained a significant credibility boost by landing the Giro d’Italia and will likely reap more positive media coverage assuming the race goes successfully. For example, through its relationship with and financial support from Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams — a 58-year-old real-estate tycoon who emigrated from Montreal to Israel last year — Tel Aviv is introducing various cycling initiatives and hopes to turn itself into the “Amsterdam of the Middle East.” The Israel Cycling Academy will participate in the Giro — its first ever grand tour — with two of the riders actually being Israelis.

However, in some corners, Israel is seen as cynically attempting to whitewash or “sport-wash” its never-ending Palestinian problem, its alleged human rights violations, and its generally volatile and isolationist geopolitical position. In the eyes of skeptics, Israel’s action is identical to the way in which the soccer World Cup bids of Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) have been held up as examples of sport-washing — attempts to sweep serious political, cultural, and human rights issues under the rug in favor of globally-followed sporting events.

And to an international sports audience, the optics could hardly be worse. The timing and combination of these recent events could make it look to the average sports fan like the Giro is jumping into the middle of a firestorm, at the same time the rest of the world is generally trying to politically distance itself. One wonders why a public company like RCS would take on such a controversial undertaking and risk the potential impacts to both reputation and shareholder value for what might appear, from a broader financial risk perspective, to be a rather nominal fee.

For a while earlier this year, there was speculation about whether RCS would reverse its decision and decide to back out of the Israeli start and opt for a more politically favorable location. But with the race start now only days away, that is clearly no longer a viable option. Indeed, the event owners might even have faced legal action under the new anti-boycott law if it had tried to change its mind. In addition, those familiar with the logistical details of organizing a major cycling event will understand that an event like this is not planned and organized over the matter of a couple weeks. So, it now seems definite that on Friday the flag will drop, just steps away from the hallowed Old City of Jerusalem.

As cycling fans, we can only hope that the event itself goes off without a hitch. The threat of terrorism is, unfortunately, a risk for cycling events anywhere on the planet, but is certainly a heightened risk in this part of the world. Presumably, the vaunted Israeli military and police forces are prepared to handle that risk. If the race had to be postponed or canceled as a result of the political environment and conflagration building in Israel, that would be a first for the cycling world, and it would do significant damage to the image and standing of both the Giro and Israel. We must hope, along with RCS, that the Israel Grande Partenza goes off without a hitch, is able to successfully showcase the beautiful landscapes and old cities of the country, and moves the needle on the growth of cycling culture and infrastructure in Israel. Everyone is crossing their fingers that this will happen, but hopefully there will also be lessons learned in this incident to avoid similar risks or uncertainties in the future.

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