Since making aliyah from Canada six years ago, Sylvan Adams has become one of Israel’s biggest boosters, promoting the country to the world through sports, music, and culture. Arranging Israel’s hosting of the first three stages of the Giro d’Italia Grand Tour bicycle race to Israel in 2018, bringing Madonna to perform at the Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv in 2019, and co-founding the Team Israel Start-Up Nation cycling team that has competed in the Tour de France are just a few of Adams’ numerous activities – all part of his grand strategy of presenting a positive face of Israel to the world.
Yet, perhaps it was Adams’ most recent operation, which was not directly connected to his usual methods of promoting the country via sports and culture, that will endure as one of his most daring and lasting accomplishments – helping free 167 Afghans, members of the Afghan women’s cycling team, along with others, from the hands of their Taliban rulers, in a dramatic cloak-and-dagger operation that could have come from the pages of a spy novel. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were notorious for their repressive acts against women. The Taliban return to power in Afghanistan this year has caused alarm throughout the world and terrified the people within Afghanistan. Several months ago, Adams received a phone call from a cycling journalist asking on behalf of an American friend who had been a coach with the Afghan women’s cycling team, if he knew anyone who could help the national Afghan women’s cycling team, who were terrified of the consequences of the Taliban takeover. The new reality meant that simply riding one’s bike could be a death sentence.
Adams contacted IsraAID, an international non-governmental humanitarian aid organization based in Israel. IsraAID teams have worked in emergency and long-term development settings in more than 50 countries around the world. Working with IsraAID CEO Yotam Politzer, Adams helped coordinate the rescue activities. IsraAID engaged Afghan operatives on the ground in Afghanistan and had originally planned to fly them to Germany from Kabul. However, after the suicide bombing attack at the airport on August 26, that plan had to be abandoned, as the Germans and other countries abandoned further flights.
“We needed to devise a Plan B – a land route,” recalls Adams. The IsraAID operatives took the Afghan women by ground transport and escorted them to the border of an unnamed, neighboring country. Adams cannot name the country because IsraAID may use this corridor in the future for other missions to free Afghans. Though Adams was not personally in Afghanistan, he retells the events with panache and a sense of suspense. “The lineup at the border was enormous, and we were at the back of the line. We found a safe house.” When they reached the border, they encountered Taliban forces, who aimed their rifles at the heads of the Afghan escapees. Adams had one more card to play.
“I had a friend,” Adams says, “who had made major industrial investments in that country and who personally knew that country’s president.” Adams received a call from Yotam, warning him that the Afghan women were in grave danger. Adams immediately contacted his friend and asked him to urgently call the country’s president directly on behalf of the group of Afghans. Minutes after the call was made, the group of 42 women, girls, and family members walked across the border to safety and freedom. The group was permitted to stay in the country for only 24 hours, and Adams and IsraAID had to find a place for them to go.
Adams, warming to the story, continues: “The United Arab Emirates (UAE) heard that an Israeli group had taken these Afghan female cyclists out of Afghanistan. Under the auspices of the Abraham Accords, where we are now warm neighbors and friends, the Emiratis volunteered to take in our group. This has beautiful symbolism. Here we were – a group of Israeli Jews saving Muslims from Afghanistan and bringing them in with the aid of another Muslim country. It shows what a tremendous change has taken place in the region.”
Adams, who generously sponsored the mission, then put together a second group, together with IsraAID, of another 125 Afghans, including female judges, cyclists, members of a female robotics team, journalists, TV presenters, human rights activists, family members of Afghan diplomats, artists, law enforcement officers, scientists, and others. The second group flew from Mazār-i-Sharīf Airport in northern Afghanistan in a plane chartered by Adams to Albania, another Muslim country. Adams then flew to Albania to personally thank the Prime Minister, as well as meet the refugees. There, he delivered Team Israel Start-up Nation jerseys to the women cyclists, took them for a bike ride, and sat down with all of the refugees to hear the harrowing stories of their narrow escape. One of the most moving moments, he says, was when he met the last Jewish family living in Afghanistan, which had departed with the second group. “I sat with the matriarch of this family,” recalls Adams. She cried, and she said, ‘Our people have come to rescue us.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house – not hers and not mine.”
Speaking of the Afghan rescue effort, Adams says, “We have made friends. They said to me, ‘We can never repay you.’ I told them how they could repay me. When you’re resettled somewhere, and you’re successful, and you meet people in need, I told them, you can extend yourself to help those people and pay it forward. In that way, we will have been fully repaid.” To date, Adams reports, 167 Afghans were taken out from Afghanistan in these covert missions. Thirty-eight cyclists were resettled in Switzerland, with visas procured via the help of cycling’s governing federation, the UCI, which Adams recruited to this mission. Adams is working to arrange for the remainder to be resettled as refugee claimants in Canada.
Adams, who is continuing to work with IsraAID to help other Afghans leave, says, “I’m fortunate to have been able to do it, and gratified to have met them and see that we’ve offered these people a chance at life, hope and a future.”
The impetus for the rescue effort started with Adams’ cycling connections, which leads him to bring up Team Israel Start-Up Nation and its participation in the Tour de France. This is the only Israeli team in history to compete in the highest league of its sport. “It is a major achievement to be in the marquee event at the highest level of one of the most-watched events of any kind. Over two billion television viewers watch the Tour, and we are proudly competing with the word ‘Israel’ emblazoned on our team jerseys.” For Adams, the tremendous visibility of an Israeli team participating in the Tour de France is yet another way to build bridges of friendship via sports and culture.
His next major goal is by far his most ambitious to date: hosting the FIFA World Cup, the world’s biggest sports showcase. In 2026, the World Cup will be jointly hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In that vein, Adams is planning a Middle East World Cup bid for the 2030 edition, to be hosted jointly by Israel, Egypt, the UAE, and, Adams adds with great excitement, Saudi Arabia. FIFA head Gianni Infantino was recently in Israel and discussed the possibility with Adams. “Peace in the region means peace in the world,” he enthuses, “I’m excited about this idea of sports diplomacy. This is my credo of using sports to build those bridges and creating new relationships and new friends in the region and around the world. I am optimistic about succeeding in this venture, because President Infantino has told me that he will support our bid. Including the Saudis takes this well beyond sport, into the highest levels of diplomacy and peacemaking.”
While the World Cup idea is a few years off, Adams is involved in the here-and-now. He was the leading force behind bringing the Ironman Israel competition to Israel. The Ironman is a triathlon race consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride, and a marathon 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run. The first Ironman Israel event will be held in Tiberias on November 12. Adams says that he plans on bringing the Ironman event to Israel again, and he will reveal more details in the very near future about future Ironman Israel competitions.
The following month, on December 11th, the Sylvan Adams National Velodrome in Tel Aviv will host the UCI Track Champion’s League, featuring the 72 best track cyclists in the world, broadcast by Eurosport around the world. In fact, Tel Aviv will be the final competition of this series, featuring double points, and the league champions will be crowned in Israel.
Just a few months later, in February 2022, Adams’ Team Israel Start-Up Nation will compete in the Tour of the UAE cycling race for the third consecutive year, which will be held in Abu Dhabi. Adams says that the connections that are built via sports carry over to everyday aspects of life. “Israel has a pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. These are important achievements, because they cement the diplomatic peace, building warm relations that are genuine and organic,” he notes.
Adams emphasizes that his frenzy of activity is intended to strengthen Israel and increase the number of tourists who visit. “One of the major motivations in reaching out to these hundreds of millions, and even billions of fans is to show the beauty of Israel and to attract tourism.” Proving that this approach is working, Adams cites the success of the 2018 Giro bicycle race. “From 2018 to 2019, after a billion TV viewers had seen all of Israel during three glorious days of the Giro, from north to south, and including a full day in Jerusalem, our capital city – bicycle racing takes place outdoors, and the images broadcast of our country were truly stunning – we had the highest growth rate of tourism in the world, 38%. I know that it works. Not only are we building bridges and showing the best face of Israel – the true face of Israel all over the world – but we’re also building up tourism. There is a tangible value to these events, and I believe they actually more than pay for themselves financially.”
Adams is bullish on increasing the number of tourists who come to Israel annually. “In 2019, we had four and a half million tourists that came to Israel. Paris gets 60 million tourists – I don’t see why we should be happy with less than 10 or 12 million tourists coming each year. This is a fantastic country to visit, and we simply need to get the word out. This is an important goal of my activities.”
Adams views his efforts to promote Israel to the world and increase tourism as “an antidote to the poison spewed by BDS and other haters. The more people we can show our true selves to the silent majority of apolitical people in the world, meaning simple sports fans, music fans and the like, we disprove the lies of BDS and the other haters. This silent majority of people will think, ‘Wait for a second, I’ve been to Israel. That’s not the country you’re describing.’”
While Adams is best known for his efforts to show the face of Israel abroad, he is not neglecting the home front – far from it. Adams donated NIS 100 million to establish a state-of-the-art emergency ward at Tel Aviv Sourasky (Ichilov) Medical Center, scheduled to open shortly. “Ichilov is the most important hospital in the in the metropolis of the country, and it’s the emergency ward where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was brought to after he was shot, which is particularly poignant for me,” says Adams. He is also the driving force behind the Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital in Holon, located at the Wolfson Medical Center. The hospital, home of the “Save A Child’s Heart” program, offers life-saving pediatric heart surgery to Israeli and Palestinian children, as well as those from 62 countries where access to pediatric heart care is limited or nonexistent.
“I think my projects of projecting a benevolent Israel abroad also resonate with the people here in the country, thereby bringing us closer together as a nation,” says Sylvan Adams, “but it’s also essential to strengthen the home front with crucial and important infrastructure. I’m blessed to be able to give back to this country and the country that accepted me as an immigrant. For me, it’s a thrill, and I love seeing this country grow stronger.”