A spoke in the wheels

Ethiopian athletic hopefuls find that funding is the biggest hill to climb

Cycling club 521 (photo credit: Judith Sudilovsky)
Cycling club 521
(photo credit: Judith Sudilovsky)
IT IS ALMOST 8 A.M. DURING THE second week of summer vacation and five young cyclists and their coach are out in a dry field across from Moshav Zano’ach, just outside of Beit Shemesh, in the middle of Israel’s best cycling country. The summer heat is not yet oppressive and cycling coach Einav Getraide is putting the five boys, members of the competitive cyclist team of the Beit Shemesh Shimshon Riders Cycling Club, through their paces.
After Getraide tells them how to prepare their riding techniques for changes in terrain during a race, they pedal up a small hill covered in thorny shrubs and dried grass in single-line formation. Maintaining an even pace and distance from each other, Tadela Atana, 15, is in the lead followed by Tal Madmoni, 14, Ben Ganon, 15, Nogus Belete, 15, with Omri Lichtenstein, 13, bringing up the rear.
Nogus and Atana have also been selected to be members of the Israeli National Cadet Cycling Team last year.
They came to Israel from Ethiopia as young children with their families 11 and 14 years ago respectively and are now the only Ethiopians who cycle competitively in Israel.
The cadet team meets three or four times a year for training sessions.
Despite the temptation of vacation sleep time, the boys have been up since 5:30 a.m., arriving at the practice field on their bikes by 6:15 a.m. for their once-a-week training session with Getraide, 36. Curly haired and lean, Getraide is a combination big brother and demanding coach.
On school days when there was no training, his mother had to wake him up, admits Atana. But when he has training, he wakes up on his own, he grins.
After this training session, he and Belete will make their way on their donated bikes to the Derekh Burma bike shop where they have started working for the summer. This is how they had planned to spend their vacation.
Unfortunately, what they did not know as they pedaled and maneuvered over the dusty, bumpy terrain was that this was to be their last training session with Getraide.
As of mid-July, the Beit Shemesh Shimshon Riders Cycling Club no longer had funds to pay Getraide, who works with Endure, a professional training program that combines online personal training with professional coaching.
So, for now, the cycling future of Belete and Atana—who have won dozens of medals and trophies between them and whose cycling coaches have gone as far as to say they could be Olympic competition and world championship material in another ten years with the proper training—is untenable.
They and their teammates on the competitive cycling team will be left with the oncea- week training session with Shimshon Riders volunteer coach Israel Goldstein, who also gives them a weekly training program to follow on their own the rest of the week.
ALONG WITH THEIR MEDALS and trophies, Atana and Belete also feel they must keep on winning for their community. “Other Ethiopians see us with our bikes and helmets [and trophies] and say they also want to ride, maybe they also have a future,” says Tadela.
But the responsibility weighs on them heavily. It remains to be seen yet if he and Belete can continue to be focused on their training and maintain their performance levels without the extra professional level training sessions. Getraide is concerned that losing the training session could also affect their selfconfidence, which is still fragile. Even the pressure of knowing that people think they have talent is sometimes too much for them, he says. The boys come from an environment that is ill-equipped to provide the emotional and psychological support and balance needed for athletes, where they can learn that losing sometimes is part of the sport and not the end of it.
“It will be very difficult for them,” Getraide thought when he received the letter informing him of the termination of his training sessions from Shimshon Riders volunteer manager Eitan Hebrony.
“They are taking it very hard and didn’t understand what was happening,” Getraide tells The Report. “They need one steady coach for the long run. The kind of practice they are doing now is very right for them and every change in their routine will require new work and new training. This is a very critical moment for them.”
The boys need more training sessions, not less, he says.
Volunteer manager Hebrony, who lives in nearby Moshav Nacham, is one of the original founders of the Shimshon Riders Cycling Club and also serves as the paid coach for the cycling club. He too is unhappy about having to give up on Getraide’s training sessions.
“I am very worried about them losing the training sessions,” Hebrony, a computer programmer, tells The Report. “These kids can reach national and international levels.”
Though lack of funding for Israel sportsmen is nothing new – especially in low profile sports such as cycling – those involved in the coaching of the boys are especially concerned that they may not be able to reach their full potential without improved support.
Biking is an expensive sport, notes Hebrony, with good bikes costing upwards of NIS 20,000, ($5,700) plus the cost of helmets, shoes, uniforms, training and travel.
Normally cycling is a sport for those in the higher socioeconomic bracket and most cyclists have family backing, but in the case of Atana and Belete, the club is their only resource, as their families cannot provide financial support, he says.
Adds Getraide, “If the state would invest in them a bit, they would go far. It is absurd – they have such amazing talents and [the state] doesn’t allow them to develop and grow.
Eitan works day and night [for them] and the club has done a lot to bring them to where they are.”
The cycling club was established as a volunteer community project by a group of local cyclists designed to advance the sport and to help disadvantaged youth in Beit Shemesh learn social values, such as teamwork, persistence, determination and responsibility. Today, some 30 children from various Beit Shemesh neighborhoods, including those from underprivileged families and children from the region, have joined the club. They each pay a symbolic NIS 10 per meeting.
The competitive cycling team was an unexpected outgrowth of the afternoon cycling club. Members volunteer as assistants with the younger children in the afternoon riding club.
The club is supported by a variety of sources including the City of Beit Shemesh, which has provided them with bicycles, funding and the bomb shelter clubhouse where they work out of, in the Harnarkis neighborhood.
Other funders include the One To One Foundation from the UK and the Beit Shemesh Foundation, which have also helped with funding and bicycle donations. An anonymous Israeli family also donated money and bikes to the club in memory of a deceased family member who loved cycling. The Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 with Washington D.C. and South Africa provided crucial funding for the first three years and gave seed money for new projects but no longer does. Bank Yahav has also pledged to donate NIS 40,000, if the club can come up with matching funds, notes Yitzhak Teister, an accountant who is one of the ten volunteer members of the club’s board of directors.
Hebrony notes that they have turned to local businesses, medical funds and companies for sponsorships and new funding. In addition on September 2 the club will be sponsoring for the sixth year the Tour de Beit Shemesh cycling race, their main fundraiser, through the Israel Cycling Federation. Part of the proceeds will go towards training for Atana and Belete, he says.
FOR ATANA AND BELETE, JOINing the Shimshon Riders Cycling club five years ago was an escape from the boredom and emptiness of the after-school hours. Belete’s older brother Avraham had joined and they followed his lead. Like many families within the Ethiopian Israeli community, the boys’ parents work long hours, struggling to adapt to the new culture and new language they encountered in Israel, and the youngsters spent much of their spare time on the streets, getting into trouble both in and after school.
“I thought I would join the club instead of sitting around watching TV,” says Belete, the youngest of eight children.
“Before I started riding I was wild in school, but the bike helped me to keep still in my chair and study instead of getting up every five minutes. I don’t know why, but I am not bored anymore.”
“It beats hanging out with my friends smoking cigarettes,” agrees Atana, the second of five children.
Today the club members are more interested in the Tour de France than getting into trouble on the streets, says Hebrony. “When the other cycling groups see them coming at competitions, they say, ‘Here come Tadela and Nogus.’” The cycling competitions are usually far away, and Atana’s and Belete’s families normally can’t afford the trip to come watch them compete – although Belete says that he did once ask his older sister to take him to a competition and she did. Residents of the downscale Narkis neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, the family also has no phone, which makes it hard for his coaches to keep in touch with him. Atana, who also lives in Narkis, says his mother is supportive of his racing, but his father doesn’t understand why he is wasting time riding on a bike rather than studying. His older brother came twice to watch him compete, he adds.
Though at first Atana and the Belete brothers did not distinguish themselves from the others in the club and exhibited the same kind of undisciplined, rowdy and even violent behavior as many of the other children, it didn’t take long for their talents to be discovered.
Along with their successes in riding they also became more focused, more responsible, more patient and displayed more self-respect.
Their teachers began complimenting the boys and the club, says Hebrony, even more so when the school came in second place in a national school league cycling competition for the past two years, thanks to the trio and their teammates on the competitive cycling team.
“We started taking [Atana and Belete] to competitions and discovered that they not only had the power but also had incredible aerobic endurance,” says Hebrony.
In October 2010, with the help of a sponsor, Belete and Atana participated in the Ride Israel Trail – the only Ethiopian Israelis out of the 300 riders. They were seeing Israel in a way they would otherwise not have experienced, notes Hebrony. Belete was also in Turkey, in April 2011, for the European Cadet Championships, where he competed against 60 riders from all over Europe, placing fourth and ninth place in his rides.
BELETE SAYS HE IS NOT surprised at his achievements. “I’ve put a lot of work and effort into this.
When I am riding I don’t think about anything. I just do as much as I can do to succeed.”
It wasn’t always like that, Hebrony says, and it took some time for the boys to realize their own potential and to believe in themselves.
The coaches are in close contact with the boys prior to a race to help them maintain their confidence and focus, and spend time talking to them and coaching them about which tactics and techniques to use during a race.
Normally it is Goldstein who accompanies the boys to the races in his or Hebrony’s car, is there to give them water at the rest stops, and waits with them for the results. Sometimes when the race is far in the north – as it was in the recent national mountain bike championship – it requires an overnight stay as well.
In this last competition the boys faced new, more aggressive riding tactics from their opponents, especially Belete, who fell several times and came in 22 out of 28, while Atana who was riding a relatively heavier bike, weighing 13 kilos as opposed to the other racers who had 9 kilo bikes – the lighter the bike the more expensive it is – still managed to come in at 9th place. Belete took his placing hard, but Goldstein is working with him to accept this as just one stepping stone along the way and as a learning experience, says Hebrony.
But the boys have come a long way since their first races. Hebrony says that he could tell that Atana was holding back in his first competition.
“I asked him why he didn’t break away and get into the lead position and he said he was afraid,” recalls Hebrony.
The boys have since become local heroes of sorts, role models for their families and schoolmates, Hebrony says. Now Belete’s nephew has joined the cycling club and Hebrony has his eye on the boy as a potential competitive cyclist in the future.
But in the meantime, he laments the loss of a good cyclist in Avraham, Belete’s older brother, who was Israeli cross-country cycling champion in 2009. Because of a lack of proper psychological grounding, the selfimposed pressure of winning became too much for him and after finishing lower than anticipated in a few subsequent races, he quit the team a year after taking the championship.
Now he produces parties mostly for the Ethiopian community, so, Hebrony says, at least the years in the cycling club helped him mature and take responsibility.
But the team has lost a star cyclist. “He was frightened,” says Hebrony. “He lost his confidence. He is very introverted and though we all talked to him, we just lost him.”
Hebrony is concerned that the same not happen to Atana and Belete, and dreams of having a budget, which would allow contracting a sports psychologist to accompany the boys. “We can’t send the kids out to competitions like that without one,” he says.
For now, Belete almost manages to talk the talk of a goal-oriented athlete – but not quite.
“I want to succeed and get as far as I can with more and more victories so everybody can see that I have succeeded,” he says. “Then they will not always look at us and say, ‘Those are the children who make problems.’ They will see that we aren’t troublemakers at all.”
For Getraide those words raise a red flag.
He doesn’t want the boys’ sense of self-worth to be connected only to their success on their bicycles or because they have to prove something to others. “I want Nogus to be able say that he competes just because he likes to compete,” says Getraide.
An athlete must not only have the physical capacity to succeed in his sport, but he must also have mental powers, which will allow him to forge ahead despite losses along the way. Having succeeded thus far, Belete and Atana feel duty-bound to continue doing so and sometimes if they finish in a lower place, they feel they have let everybody down, Getraide says. He wants them to realize that they are in the sport for the long run, with nothing to prove to anyone, and that every defeat is nothing but a learning experience, which they can use to improve their technique for the next race.
“One thing is clear: An athlete will be good if everything else [in his life] is good for him.
If all the chips are put on just the sport, that won’t last long,” he says. ✡