Israeli participation in UAE World Tour affects more than the race track

Israel Start-Up Nation’s roster consists of 30 riders, from 16 different nationalities, hailing from five continents, possessing multiple and sometimes contrasting religious views.

Sylvan Adams is seen meeting with head of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council. (photo credit: ISRAEL START-UP NATION)
Sylvan Adams is seen meeting with head of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council.
(photo credit: ISRAEL START-UP NATION)
Israeli cycling team Israel Start-Up Nation (ISN) and team owner Sylvan Adams traversed through the seven United Arab Emirates last week as part of the 2020 UAE Tour.
ISN’s ride was cut short, however, when the final two stages of the 2020 UAE Tour were canceled by the cycling tour’s governing body Union Cycliste Internationale, after two Italian “staff members” on the tour were suspected of contracting the coronavirus.  This brought the weeklong Middle East tour to a screeching halt following the two positive tests the cycling body decided to cancel the tour “in the interests of the health of riders and their staff.”
On Thursday, riders including a number of Israeli contestants and four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome, took to Twitter to say that they were confined to their hotel rooms.
“We are all awaiting testing and will remain in the hotel until further notice,” Froome posted.
This isn’t where the story ends though. While the grand stage showcased the capabilities of what ISN’s riders can do – earning three top-10 positions in the past four stages – what went on behind the scenes was noteworthy as well, with ISN members holding senior meetings with top UAE sport officials, and press conferences with the top publications in Middle East media.
A common occurrence when Israelis or Israel-based teams compete in other countries, especially Arab nations, international media coverage tends to surround geopolitical non-sport related topics, which can informally create ambassadors out of these athletes when facing down the barrel of a loaded question. With this being the first time ISN has raced in the UAE – a country that hold no formal ties with Israel – or any Arab nation for that matter, the media attention all across the Middle East was centered around those caveats.
“During training camp I always told the riders, ‘you are not just a cycling athlete, you are ambassadors yourselves, you represent the home country, and you must do so with the highest regard for sportsmanship – because every one of you is being judged based on the home nation. It cuts both ways, we want you to be a part of the sport for the home nation, so we don’t tolerate any kind of negativity or bad sportsmanship and hopefully we also get good results along the way,” Adams told The Jerusalem Post.
However, the Middle East media attention – in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey and Pakistan – was more positive than initially expected, with many journalists focusing on the accomplishment of an Arab nation prominently and openly hosting an Israeli team during their biggest cycling event of the year. Whereas normally preview sporting articles are centered around the riders, the event, analysis, predictions, etcetera, each of these countries noted the Israeli participation. Some major publications in Turkey and Pakistan wrote features solely focusing on ISN’s participation.
“I am delighted that the Arab media which has covered our presence here has been able to emphasize to the world the connection that cycling can build between people,” Adams told Post. “I think that we have built a great sporting bridge between us and the Gulf states and that can only help take us to a good place in the future.”
As a World Tour competitor, Israel Start-Up Nation got an automatic bid to participate in the 2020 UAE Tour.
Instead of giving the Israeli team the cold shoulder, the UAE welcomed the team with a warm reception at the airport and even offered them increased security throughout their participation in the week-long tour.
In fact, Adams and a few of his riders personally met the head of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council and his close counterpart where they warmly greeted the Israeli riders and offered their services in event the riders needed “absolutely” anything.
“It was very nice to be so warmly welcomed. [Considering] we have Israel emblazoned on the front and back of the jerseys in large letters, it’s on our team car, it’s on our bags, and perhaps it turned a few heads when we first arrived – but now we are just being treated like a normal team from a normal country and I think that speaks volumes to how sports can be a bridge for normalization,” Adams told the Post.
Israel Start-Up Nation’s roster consists of 30 riders, from 16 different nationalities, hailing from five continents, possessing multiple and sometimes contrasting religious views – which in itself presents a scene of coexistence on one of the world’s largest stages.
Everyone involved with ISN knows very well what the implications of representing Israel are and what they have been tasked with. Every rider on the team when being brought into the program comes in knowing they are meant to be a voice of change. The main reason for holding training camp in Israel this year, was so that the riders could gain a feel of the environment in the hopes that when they return to their home countries they can explain the daily situation in Israel a bit better and justify their decision to ride for ISN in the first place.
“If you don’t embrace [Israel], you can’t be a rider on this team,” Adams told the Post. “This is part of the discussions we have with each and every one of them. As I’ve always said, I’m the self-appointed ambassador for Israel. Therefore, I’m just doing my job.”
As a cycling enthusiast and a firm believer in the power of building bridges through sport, Adams has been spearheading this type of people-to-people sport diplomacy since he made aliyah a few years back.
In relation to the UAE Tour, when the Giro d’Italia held two stages of the 2018 World Tour race in Israel, the country welcomed both Bahrain and the UAE to compete – a venture made possible by Adams, which in turn put Israel and its vast scenery on the world stage with hundreds of millions of viewers watching.
“When people saw the aerial footage throughout the Giro” a route from northern Israel all the way down to Eilat, “I can tell you that Israelis came up to me and said ‘wow, I’ve never seen Israel so beautiful, I have finally seen how beautiful my country is,’” Adams told the Post, alluding to the assumption that the international audience probably felt the same way.
Additionally, Adams funded the creation of a velodrome in Tel Aviv, an indoor arena made for track cycling, a state-of-the-art facility in which he hopes all Middle East riders will feel comfortable training.
“I’ve sent an invitation to all the riders in the region – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority – to come and train at our new velodrome in Tel Aviv,” Adams added.
Cycling is not the only international arena Adams has dabbled in. With some private funding Adams made many Israeli soccer fans’ dreams came true last November when Lionel Messi’s Argentinian squad competed in a rival exhibition match against Luis Suarez’s Uruguayan side in Tel Aviv – showcasing talents of the highest caliber, players that compete in some of the world’s most competitive leagues, such as Serie A, La Liga and the English Premier League on a stage in Israel to countless viewers in addition to the 20,000 in attendance.
“The reason for doing this event is that it fits schematically with the other projects that I’m doing, and have done and want to continue to do, which is to expose what I call ‘normal Israel.’ I think that this is a beautiful message, a beautiful way of showing the country to people who don’t have a dog in this fight, who are not political, and I really believe is shared throughout the massive majority of people [living in this county].”
The match garnered international media attention, and earned Israel a mention in major sport publications such as ESPN, Fox Sports, among others – earning worldwide coverage in multiple languages.
The main idea behind Adams’ mission is person-to-person soft diplomacy, and he tries to achieve this aspect in any endeavor he embarks on. Aside from the sports world, Adams was a part of the team that brought Madonna to Israel to perform at Eurovision in “order to have the best Eurovision possible.”
“The Eurovision was so successful it got coverage in the United States where many people have never heard of the Eurovision. Mainly in part of booking the American star [Madonna] we got mentions and coverage in main stream media [outlets across the world].”
Adams is also involved in philanthropy for health and science programs. He was involved in Israel’s mission to be the fourth country to successfully land the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet on the moon in 2019.
“We earned so much respect from the Americans, especially at Cape Canaveral, we earned so much respect for our innovation, creativity and scientific prowess they now want to partner and learn from us, and we’ve inspired people around the world,” Adams said.
Additionally, Adams leads health initiatives such as Save a Child’s Heart, which is funded by the Sylvan Adams Foundation – bringing children to Israel from all across the world for life-saving heart surgeries and has treated more than 5,000 children from 62 countries – including the Palestinian territories and African nations.
“The Jewish people works to save people from across the world. I am proud to lead, alongside the best Israeli medical professionals, this extraordinary project of life-saving cardiac surgery,” Adams said. “It’s quite remarkable how they come to love Israel, because Israel is bringing them something of great importance, and they see how pure our motivations are.”
Adams’ dream scenario with all the projects he takes part in is to normalize Israel to the world and fortify hopefully longstanding relationships with other countries – even in countries that the possibility is far out-of-reach due to formal diplomatic ties – that can one day turn into partnerships with the most unlikely entities.
“All of these projects require person-to-person contact, all the work involves projecting what I call ‘normal Israel’ abroad to large audiences. Building bridges of constructiveness, of camaraderie and dare I say friendships for the future. As we are building these links with the local UAE officials here, we are creating conditions where they know us, and we know them. It builds bridges of confidence, trust, understanding and in some areas friendships endure. This opens the door to when hopefully we do have diplomatic relations with the UAE, this will all be vetted on a person to person basis and will all quickly be normal,” Adams concluded.