JERUSALEM (VN) — Giro d’Italia officials are hopeful the focus will remain on bike racing when the Italian grand tour starts in Israel for its 2018 edition.
Officials downplayed the possibility of politics becoming an issue as the Giro takes its “Big Start” beyond the European realm for the first time with three stages in Israel in May.
Speaking to VeloNews on Monday following the official announcement of three days of racing in Israel, Giro director Mauro Vegni said politics was not a major part of the conversation with Israeli officials.
“There are some difficulties about coming to Israel, but they are logistical, not political,” Vegni said. “The country is trying to change how it is perceived in the world, so maybe it is time to stop talking about these political questions. In the end, the decision to come to Israel was easy.”
Israeli officials are also keen to put the emphasis on sport. They hope that the divisive and emotional political questions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won’t overshadow what many wish will be a chance for the nation to show off a different side of Israel that often does not make international headlines.
“Our message to the world is clear: Jerusalem is open to all,” said Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat. “Viewers around the globe will watch some of the world’s best cyclists ride alongside the walls of Jerusalem’s ancient Old City and our historic sites.”
The decision to bring the Giro to Israel won’t come without its detractors. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has prompted calls for an international boycott and divestment effort by some quarters critical of Israel’s policies.
This week, a pro-Palestinian group started a social media campaign (#RelocateTheRace) to try to pressure race officials to change the location of the start of the 2018 edition.
Israeli officials and backers, however, are hoping to use the Giro to show off another side of Israel in what will be the 70th anniversary of the founding of the nation. The stage routes will take in the beaches, deserts, ancient sites and modern cities, and wooded hillsides that dot the Israeli landscape.
Sylvan Adams, a Canadian billionaire who recently moved to Israel, is one of the main benefactors in the nation’s booming interest in cycling. As honorary president of the Giro effort, he is also one of the co-owners of the Israel Cycling Academy, the Professional-Continental team angling to receive a Giro wild-card bid, as well as helping to fund Israel’s first indoor velodrome.
“This historic ‘Big Start’ is about showcasing our country. This country today is not your grandfather’s Israel,” Adams said unabashedly. “Cycling is outdoors, so how better can we about having so many people see our normal Israel, the Israel they don’t normally read about every day in the newspaper.”
There is also some concern whether or not the two WorldTour teams backed by Muslim sponsors — Bahrain-Merida and UAE-Emirates — might not want to participate. Israeli citizens are not allowed to travel to the United Arab Emirates, and neither UAE nor Bahrain officially recognizes the state of Israel.
On Wednesday, Bahrain-Merida released a statement on their team website indicating they are planning on racing the 2018 Giro. Without saying so directly, the team confirmed it would race the Giro despite its start in Israel.
UAE-Emirates officials could not be contacted, but Vegni said he does not expect any problems.
“We already talked to all the teams before signing off on this,” Vegni said. “We expect all the WorldTour teams to race the Giro.”
In general, cycling has turned a blind eye to potentially divisive political issues. Qatar, China, UAE and Bahrain, all nations with human rights concerns, have been involved in elite cycling events or teams without resistance from major sporting governing bodies and institutions.
Ministers of tourism from both Italy and Israel joined officials from RCS Sport in Monday’s announcement. Negotiations with Israeli contacts began about 18 months ago, and the project reached the highest levels of the Israeli government, including approval from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, before receiving the green light.
Local media reported that RCS Sport will receive 12 million euros for the project, a fee that also includes transportation and logistical costs. The project is a major coup for RCS Sport, both financially and in terms of ambition.
Another concern is security, but the Giro route is steering clear of any potential hotspots. Officials outlined three stages across areas of Israel that deliberately avoid trouble zones. The routes include a time trial around western Jerusalem. That’s followed by road stages along the northern Mediterranean coast of Israel, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, and another across the southern desert to Eilat, all far away from possible conflicts along Israel’s borders.
The peloton and entourage will return to Italy in a flight of about two-and-a-half hours. The remainder of the Giro route will be revealed over the winter.
Two-time Giro champion Alberto Contador, a guest of organizers at Monday’s announcement, said he doesn’t expect security to be a major concern.
“The situation in the world is a little crazy right now, and it isn’t just in one country, but all the world,” Contador said. “I’m sure the riders will be happy with the security situation. I visited Israel for two weeks in 2012, and we never had any problems.”
Ran Margaliot, a former pro and manager of the Israel Cycling Academy team, said Israel will embrace the Giro’s arrival as a chance to show a different side of their nation and people.
“When you practice sport, you reach people through their heart. We hope we can change a little bit about what they think about our country,” Margaliot said. “This is the reason we are here. We are trying to change what people think about our country. We think it’s important to let the world know what we know is normal Israel.”
Israel is an evocative, if divisive place. Everyone involved in the Giro project are hoping that the bicycle will help build bridges between the walls that divide many.