Sportswashing is associated with certain countries – why not Israel?
The soft power objective of Israeli sport is for us to focus on a cycling team or a visit by Lionel Messi rather than Palestine, says Sports Journalism Association 2021 Sportswriter of the Year Jonathan Liew.
In the summer of 2020 a group of five cyclists from Ramallah were out on a ride when they were stopped by a group of Israeli settlers. According to Reuters, on discovering the cyclists were Palestinian, the settlers began hurling stones at them. Four escaped into a nearby field. One, Samer Kurdi, lost his footing and was repeatedly beaten with a metal rod, suffering serious injuries. It is not known if any arrests were made.
For Chris Froome and his colleagues on the Israel Start-Up Nation pro cycling team, the roads of the occupied West Bank were a far safer place last November, as they rolled through the Judaean Hills on an open training ride. English-language media were flown out to Israel and given full access to the team during their first camp in Israel since 2019. The team and their followers were treated to luxury hospitality, taken on beach visits and kayaking excursions. But then Israel Start-Up Nation – the fledgling team relaunched last week as Israel-Premier Tech – has always known the value of good PR.
Peter Sagan was one of its early ambassadors, and the recruitment of other top riders like Froome, Sep Vanmarcke and Dan Martin have helped to grow its sporting reputation. But the team’s most enthusiastic publicist is billionaire co-owner Sylvan Adams, a self-styled “ambassador-at-large for the State of Israel” who sees in sport a means of enhancing the country’s standing amid widespread criticism over its human rights record, treatment of Palestinians and continued defiance of international law.
It was Adams who drove Israel’s audacious £9m bid to host the start of the Giro d’Italia in 2018, the first part of an unprecedented investment in international sport. The same year he built the region’s first Olympic-standard velodrome, which will host the junior track worlds in August. Argentina and Uruguay visited Tel Aviv for an international friendly in 2019, as did Paris Saint-Germain and Lille last August for France’s equivalent of the Community Shield. There is even some serious talk within Fifa of a joint 2030 World Cup bid with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Adams insists that Israel Premier-Tech is apolitical and not a government project, although it receives funding – a “pitifully small amount”, he says – from the national tourism board. And while the likes of Bahrain, the UAE and Kazakhstan all sponsor World Tour teams, none has been this open or vocal about its soft power objectives. “We’re perceived as a warzone here in Israel, that we’re in a state of conflict,” Adams has said. “We want the team to help tell the story you don’t often hear about.” Ron Baron, the team’s other co-owner, describes it as a form of “sport diplomacy”. According to Guy Niv, one of the team’s few Israeli cyclists and a former army sniper, every rider understands that “being on an Israeli team, they are ambassadors for the country”.
When we refer to sportswashing, the attempt by nation-states to sanitise their reputations and launder their crimes, there is a certain kind of country we’re usually thinking of. We have no problem linking the manifold abuses of Qatar or Saudi Arabia or China to their investment in sport. And yet there appears to be a certain squeamishness about referring to Israel in similar terms, even though its aims are even more explicitly stated, its crimes well documented by human rights groups.
The primary objective of Israeli sporting diplomacy is that when you hear the country’s name, you won’t think of any of this. You won’t think about military checkpoints or the bombing of Gaza or the Palestinian occupation, or really Palestinians at all. Instead you’ll think about golden beaches, rooftop cocktails, Lionel Messi and Chris Froome bathed in a glorious sunset. “Most people don’t care about politics,” Adams has said. “Through world-class cultural and sporting events, we can reach the silent majority.”
But push at the door a little, and all the classic sportswashing tropes are present: denial, whataboutery, the curious blend of incredulity and aggression. “This is a peaceful country, go and hassle people who work in totalitarian regimes,” Adams told Cycling Weekly in 2020 in response to questions on Israel’s human rights abuses. Meanwhile, Twitter users were quick to spot that around the time Froome’s move to Israel Start-Up Nation was announced, his Twitter picture – a photograph from the Giro in which a number of Palestinian flags are visible in the crowd – was quietly deleted.
In many ways cycling is the ideal sportswashing partner: a sport with no real tradition of political activism, where cash-strapped teams are generally none too precious about where the money is coming from. But there is another dimension to this: for many cycling is synonymous with freedom, the open road, the intimate connection between humans and the land. For Palestinian cyclists, running a daily gauntlet of checkpoints, roadblocks, violence and economic hardship, the bike is its own quiet form of resistance. “It is our duty to keep our relationship with this land,” a Palestinian cyclist called Sohaib Samara told the Guardian in 2020. “If we stop moving around, the occupiers will steal more of it.”
And so for Israel sport serves a dual function: both positive reinforcement and tool of repression. In March 2018, a promising Palestinian cyclist called Alaa al-Dali attended a march in Gaza with his bike, wearing cycling kit, to protest against Israel’s refusal to allow him to travel abroad for international competition. According to a United Nations report, he was shot by an Israeli sniper in the leg, which then had to be amputated after his request to leave Gaza for treatment was denied by Israeli authorities. He now competes as a para-cyclist.