TEL AVIV, Israel (VN) — Sylvan Adams spends millions publicizing his love of Israel, but he insists his WorldTour team is not on the government payroll.
The flamboyant billionaire who backs the Israel Start-Up Nation team bills himself as the “self-appointed ambassador-at-large for the State of Israel,” and proudly brandishes the WorldTour team to promote what he calls is a more balanced view of Israel.
But is the high-profile WorldTour team — home of four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome — an official arm of the Israeli government?
Adams adamantly says no.
“This is not a state project,” Adams told VeloNews. “I am, by far, the largest single contributor from the team, and we do receive a small amount from the tourism board. There is no other government funding.”
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Adams confirmed that the national Israeli tourism agency, Go Israel, is a minority team partner, but said otherwise the team does not receive any other funding from the national government nor serves as an extension of Israeli government policy.
Some might have wondered who is backing the team, considering how pervasive the team’s pro-Israeli message is.
There is certainly no confusion about the link between the team and Israel. The Star of David is stitched onto the team logo, and Israel is right there front and center in its name, its image, and its messaging.
“This isn’t a propaganda exercise,” Adams said in an interview during a pre-season team camp in Israel this week. “There is some money from the ministry of tourism, a pitifully small amount they give us, which does not give us enough credit for how good we are for tourism in Israel.”
Though there are other important co-sponsors and partners, Adams confirmed he underwrites most of the team’s WorldTour budget.
Numbers of the official budget were not revealed, but Adams said that the team is “in the middle” of comparable WorldTour budgets, suggesting that the team budget is between $15 million to $20 million annually.
And Adams pays for most of it.
Promoting a different version of the Israeli image
For Adams, cycling and what he views as Israel’s rightful place in the world of nations go hand in hand.
The 63-year-old Adams enthusiastically promotes Israel across the international stage, and uses the WorldTour team to promote not only Israeli tourism but also what he calls a “more realistic vision” of what he says modern Israel is.
“The home country is unambiguously Israel. We don’t have a commercial sponsor. This is our identity,” Adams told VeloNews. “Israel is not well understood. We’re often in the news, but my experience with first-time visitors is that they’re shocked with the fact that the Israel that they were expecting doesn’t match the Israel that really exists.”
Adams — whose father, a Holocaust survivor, started a real estate development company in Canada — moved here in 2016 when he made aliyah and patriated to Israel.
Also an accomplished cyclist, Adams quickly emerged as one of the leading philanthropists in Israel, and moves among the highest political and social circles, and rubs shoulders with leading politicians and business leaders.
Adams’ one-way enthusiasm for Israel might rub some the wrong way, especially with the ongoing Middle East conflict and Israel’s sometimes controversial policies on the Palestinian issue.
Yet Adams pushes back against the idea that Israel should be treated as some sort of international pariah, and campaigns tirelessly to promote a gentler, kinder vision of Israel.
“Do we live in a conflict zone? Yes. Is it our only story and does it preoccupy us in our daily lives? Not really,” he said. “Israel is a modern, diverse, pluralistic, open, and fiercely democratic nation. And that’s the impression you get when you come here.”
Bringing riders and staffers to ‘see for themselves’
To drive home his point, Adams brought most of the team’s riders and staffers — along with VeloNews and other media — to Israel for a weeklong trip to visit and see the nation for themselves in what’s the first team camp inside Israel since 2019.
With the coronavirus pandemic finally easing up a bit, it’s the first time many of the current Israel Start-Up Nation riders and staffers could visit the nation that’s backing the team.
“These guys ride for Israel, so they need to know the country,” Adams said. “It’s expensive for us to hold this camp — we could do it a lot cheaper in Spain — but this is part of our DNA and it’s important for riders who are not familiar with Israel to see it for themselves. We want to show them around, and let them judge for themselves.”
In a packed agenda, riders and staffers toured Old Jerusalem, including stops at the holy sites at the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The team also visited the Holocaust Museum, with other stops at the beaches in Tel Aviv and kayaking in the Sea of Galilee.
Riders rode in the Jerusalem Hills and traced over single-track to Masada near the Dead Sea.
The team did not, however, visit some of the more controversial areas that mark the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict dating back to the creation of the state of Israel. The trip was viewed entirely through the prism of Adams’ view of Israel.
Riders and staffers, especially the ones who had not yet visited Israel, said they were intrigued with what they saw.
“It’s fascinating getting to know such a complex history of this country,” Froome told VeloNews. “Riding for an Israeli team, [being here] has a little bit more bearing on what I am doing on the team. Going to the Holocaust Museum was extremely moving, to see what the Jewish people went through.”
Like many pros, Froome rarely gets to go sightseeing during his international travels as a bike racer. Froome famously won the 2018 Giro d’Italia that started in Jerusalem, but few riders visited the holy sites in Old Jerusalem during the trip to the Giro that year.
Froome buys into Adams’ vision and sees the Israeli project as a vehicle to help boost cycling in Israeli, which includes four Israeli riders on the WorldTour squad. He compared it to how Team Sky wanted to encourage riding bikes in the United Kingdom a decade ago.
“It completes the loop a bit, and allows us to see what it’s all about, and understand what we’re doing as a team,” said Froome, who joined ISN in 2021. “I’ve enjoyed being in Israel, and the past few days have been a real eye-opener.”
In Jerusalem, riders also ventured into the bustling vegetable market and then sampled Israeli-inspired tapas in Tel Aviv. Adams also hosted a happy hour and barbecue in his rooftop penthouse for riders and staffers overlooking the glittering beaches at Tel Aviv.
Adams’ fingerprints are everywhere in Israel. Throughout the week, Adams took the team to visit a velodrome he built in Tel Aviv as well as a rehabilitation treatment center using hyperbaric chambers that he is also helping to fund.
Michael Woods, who’s known Adams from his first days as he transitioned from a middle-distance runner to a professional cyclist nearly a decade ago, said he appreciates a chance to visit Israel in a non-racing context.
“It’s been a nice experience to see the culture and see what Israel is all about. I love history, so it’s been great to be here,” Woods told VeloNews. “I feel an identity with this team. I don’t feel like I am a hired gun on this team … You can empathize and see the world in a different way when you can see what others are experiencing.”
Adams pushes back on ‘sportswashing’ accusations
Another one of the stops included a visit to the residence of the Israeli president, where Adams proudly showed off his 2022 roster to the assembled local media.
“We are ambassadors of the country. Our brand is Israel,” Adams said emphatically. “We want to introduce them to the home country and let them see Israel for themselves. We are racing for Israel.”
If any of the riders might have any apprehension about that, it’s hard to say.
After all, professional cyclists are paid to race for the team that hires them, be it a floor-tiling company in Belgium, an international education network based in the United States, or one funded with petro-dollars from hereditary princes in Middle Eastern kingdoms.
When asked by VeloNews about his views that some critics accuse such teams as Israel Start-Up Nation or others of using cycling as “sportswashing,” Adams pushed back.
“I do not believe in the ‘washing concept’,” Adams said. “I don’t think the Saudis, who bought the Newscastle [soccer team via its sovereign fund], that it changes people’s impression of Saudi Arabia. So you own a soccer team, so what? So where’s the washing part? I don’t see it.
“I don’t see how nations hosting the World Cup or the Olympics, how does that wash anything?” he said. “I don’t see how Beijing hosting the Olympics changes people’s impression of how they’re treating the Uyghurs, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or other repression. It might help their tourism business.”
Adams countered that such high-profile projects, be it the World Cup or the Olympics, often bring more media attention to a nation’s human rights track record, not less.
Instead, Adams sees the Israeli cycling project as part of a larger agenda of what he describes as using sport to build bridges between sometimes antagonistic rivals.
“It’s the politics that create obstacles,” Adams said. “One of the things I like about the bike team is that we can compete in the spirit of good sportsmanship, and that’s the power of sport.”
Adams likes to point to the “big start” of the 2018 Giro d’Italia in Jerusalem — which he bankrolled at an estimated $25 million — and how he insisted that teams backed by Muslim-nation sponsors in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain be allowed to race.
“Of course those teams should have been at the Giro, and they were,” Adams said. “I am in favor of exchanges and using our sport as bridge-building exercises.”
Since taking over the majority interest in Israel Start-Up Nation and catapulting it to WorldTour status in 2020, Adams has put the Israeli stamp on the team.
It’s a unique project within what’s an already incredibly diverse variety of sponsorships backing major cycling teams. There’s everything from diabetic teams, like Novo Nordisk, and regional teams, like the Basque-centric Euskaltel-Euskadi, to teams such as Qhubeka-NextHash that promote cycling in Africa.
None, however, so fervently cheerlead a specific nation or political agenda as ISN’s Adams. There are similar projects in Astana-Qazaqstan, UAE Emirates, or Bahrain-Victorious, but those teams simply do not have a team owner taking such a public, high-profile role as Adams.
Adams’ views draw fire from some quarters, and even some within the cycling community questioned whether or not the Giro should have gone to Israel in 2018.
The region’s politics are extremely complex, and Israel itself is divided on what is the best path forward for the nation. As one local said, “Everything is political in Israel.”
Adams doesn’t doesn’t flinch in the face of criticism or skeptics, and defends against what some of his detractors might call an overly sunny view of Israel and some of its most controversial domestic and international policies.
“This isn’t a propaganda exercise,” Adams said. “I am not a propagandist, but I love my country. I moved here from Canada, and I am not moving to some retrograde society that abuses people’s rights. That’s not the kind of country I’d ever consider moving to.
“By shining a light into those countries, I do believe that sport can help build bridges through diplomacy,” he continued. “I am not against countries using sport for diplomatic purposes or for tourism, but I don’t see the washing part. It doesn’t absolve you of anything.
“You are what you are,” Adams said. “And I do not think we have the same sins that people who don’t have any understanding of the history of Israel seem to believe.”
Seeing is believing, and if Adams could have his way, everyone would come to Israel to see for themselves.