Sport can change the world – even the pope agrees

Sport, like music and art, is a universal language.

‘EVERY WEEK on soccer fields across the country, Jews and Arabs stand shoulder to shoulder, striving for victory in a spirit of mutual respect and coexistence.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘EVERY WEEK on soccer fields across the country, Jews and Arabs stand shoulder to shoulder, striving for victory in a spirit of mutual respect and coexistence.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does” – Nelson Mandela
I believe in sport – in its ability to transform lives, bring communities together and drive change. I passionately believe in the power of sports and sporting competitions to promote brotherhood and understanding between peoples. From Jesse Owens standing up to Hitler, the South African rugby team winning the World Cup and uniting a nation, to the everyday tales of heroism, sportsmanship and friendship about which we don’t always hear, sport is full of inspirational, uplifting stories.
Sport, like music and art, is a universal language, a language with no strange and unknown words and grammar to divide us. Being a sportsman implies competing with and respecting one’s opponents, irrespective of the outcome.
One must be a good loser, but more importantly, a generous winner.
This is why we can use sport to promote and advance understanding across nationalities, ethnicities, religions and geographies.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Israel, my adopted home, the land of creation. Every week on soccer fields across the country, Jews and Arabs stand shoulder to shoulder, striving for victory in a spirit of mutual respect and coexistence.
What has been the norm for decades in Israel has even been exported abroad. In Brighton, England, for example, two Israeli best friends who have played together since childhood, one Muslim Arab, one traditional Jew, have ended up living their dreams by playing side by side in the English Premier League.
The same can be seen on Israel’s roads every weekend, as multicultural cycling groups traverse the picturesque countryside, united by a love of Israel’s fastest growing sport. As a keen masters category cyclist who has competed domestically and internationally, I have seen first-hand how people of all ages and backgrounds put their differences aside and embrace their teammates and opponents.
Inspired by this, I have managed to achieve something truly remarkable: I invited Italy’s most famous sporting event, the Giro d’Italia bicycle race, to begin next year in Jerusalem. From May 3 to May 6, 2018, the 101st annual Giro will hold its “Big Start” in Israel, before moving back Italy to complete the three-week Grand Tour.
The race start in Jerusalem will be held against the backdrop of historic sites, sacred to three religions.
Exceptionally, next year’s race will finish in Rome, rather than Milan as is customary. This symbolic road from Jerusalem to Rome represents the fraternity both between Israel and Italy, and also between Judaism and its younger brother, Christianity.
This will be the first time the Giro, or any of cycling’s Grand Tour races (the Giro, Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana) will compete outside of Europe. It will also be the most prestigious sporting competition ever to be held in Israel. More than 800 million people watched the Giro d’Italia last year on television; a figure which may surpass one billion people next year. Among those competing, viewers will see Israel’s first professional cycling team, Israel Cycling Academy.
Israel Cycling Academy comprises riders from 17 nations, including five Israelis, plus our recent new addition, Turkish National champion Ahmet Orken. The presence of teams from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates at the Giro is further testament to the power of sport to transcend politics and division. Jew, Christian and Muslim; and many others from all the continents, will compete together in this Giro of Peace. The winner of the race is immaterial; we are all winners in this beautiful demonstration.
As the name implies, Israel Cycling Academy has a pedagogical vocation. Our mission is to reach out to Israel’s youth from more than 100 nationalities, ethnicities and religions, including Arab, Palestinian, Christian, African, Druse, Zoroastrian, Bahai, Ahmadi and more, to show that no boundaries impede full participation in this beautiful activity. The professional team acts as a mentor, guiding these youngsters, demonstrating that they too can reach the highest level of professional sport.
Last week, I went to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis, inviting him to Jerusalem next May to bless our historic Giro of Peace. Pope Francis, an avid sports fan, has spoken at length about the role for good that sport can play, and was excited to hear about the plans for the 2018 Giro d’Italia. Indeed, a “Vatican Olympic” sports team, comprised of clergy, employees and volunteers at the Vatican will attend the race start in Jerusalem. I even suggested that His Holiness lead a procession of young riders at the start of the Giro.
I firmly believe that bringing the Giro d’Italia to the Holy Land will contribute toward building a better world, and a better Middle East. Showcasing Israel’s stunning geography, its people and culture, emphasizing freedom and pluralism, will have a hugely positive impact on the youth of the region.
I pray that sport’s message of peace and brotherhood will be heard in neighboring countries, helping to build bridges, both between the people and the leaders of the region.
As the Jewish people repeat at every important holiday, “Next year in Jerusalem.” I truly hope that you will join us. Shalom.
The author is the honorary president of Big Start Israel, the opening three stages of the 2018 Giro d’Italia.