Ewan MacKenna: Using sport as a tool to try and scrub away human rights abuses and mass murder is a new low
It began over dinner. Mid-2016. An upmarket restaurant in Tuscany. Two men, one with a dream that was about to transform into a hardened idea across the table, on the way to becoming a reality.
It belonged to Sylvan Adams, a Canadian property mogul who measures his fortune in billions, but who around that same time lost a tax case with Quebec authorities that cost him $101m, this mere years after hundreds of millions more belonging to his family popped up in low-tax Swiss and Bajan bank accounts. Whether related or not, soon after he left for a new life in Israel, taking his cycling passion with him. His dining companion that evening was Giro d’Italia race director Mauro Vegni.
A seed was sown and, according to reports, it set the wheels in motion towards €10m being transferred to race organisers RCS, and towards last weekend when the Giro left its home continent for the first time, heading to stunning Israel for the early stages. It made you realise those in positions of power who profess to love and care for cycling really don't; otherwise they wouldn't have sent it on its knees to what many experts deem to be an apartheid state.
Of course the race had regularly been abroad before. In 2014, Ireland was the launch destination as the early battles took in both north and south, recognising the political sensitivities and division of an island. From the very outset this Middle-East venture was different, strong-armed by predictable political overtures via an ideology around why give an inch when you can take a mile.
Adams was having none of it though. As recently as December, Neal Rogers of CyclingTips.com asked some tough questions and, while his responses were predictable, they were also important.
“I think you need a fertile imagination to call it anything other than a purely positive story... Listen, this is a Giro in Israel. It’s not a Giro of Palestine. So, if they want to do a joint project with us in the future, we’ll talk to them. But this is the Giro in Israel. It’s like asking, you know, when they did the Giro start in Holland, well why didn’t Belgium get involved? Because it’s a different country, that’s why... There’s always people who want to make politics out of any discussion, but this is about sport and I don’t know how many times, it’s almost a cliche to say, let’s not mix politics with sport.”
There was a problem though as Israel had again bent over like a contortionist to make it about their brand of politics. It was bad enough that the route announcement was on the United Nations' International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, but their government via sports minister Miri Regev also claimed the race was in breach of their agreement and demanded organisers remove a referral to “west Jerusalem” due to competing claims over the city, and refer to just “Jerusalem”. RCS lay down immediately, clarifying that Israel's start would take place “from the city of Jerusalem.”
Petty and greedy have never been bedfellows with peace and compromise.
In bygone days only the naive and idiots thought sport and politics didn't mix; these days that list has been reduced down to mere idiots. Sport is to a large extent politics and, while many forms are repulsive, this was the bottom of a deep, dark barrel. Adams knew it. Regev knew it. Cycling knew it. Actual sport may have been part of the play for sure, but this was important propaganda too.
We're used to money over morals in such spheres but there has to be a line somewhere and this crossed it and simply kept on going. Sure enough our sport has become a washing machine - for dirty deeds, for corporate corruption, for troublesome brands, for grease and grime. But to allow it to be used to try scrub away human rights abuses, breaches of international law and mass murder?
Cycling is far from the only sport and this isn't to exclude the carefree attitude of many others. But it is the most recent sporting event to bow and, besides, Israel have rightly called it the biggest to ever come to town. That's because a Grand Tour rewards its hosts to an unmatched degree, as lengthy stages are used to capture the beauty and to sell the destination as if a tourist brochure.
Five years ago, sitting in a bar in Ramallah, the local owner came out with his hand outstretched, took a seat and talked about the neighbours. “You always shake hands with the Israelis too,” he beamed, “that's how you make the money.” As troublesome as it seemed, he had more of an excuse than the many stakeholders around the Giro who've been happy to do likewise for their 30 pieces.
So it was that on Sunday, as this leg of the race finished up in the small port city of Eilat, that the international press pack gathered around race leader Rohan Dennis who paid tribute to Israel. “They took to the race really well and supported us like they were a really big cycling country, which was really nice.” Defending champion Tom Domoulin had already commented pointedly that the race had every right to go there. Many with Dictaphones nodded before jetting off to Italy and sending their satisfied message around the world.
Move along, there was nothing more to see here.
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Yasser Murtaja was a journalist too. And like Sylvan Adams he had a dream, only his involved one day boarding an airplane and flying out over the border of his open prison. But that dream along with his job ceased on April 6, just a measly month before cycling lauded and thanked Israel's kindness, as he was shot dead by their military. He was buried that same day with 'press' written in big letters across his chest on a flak jacket he'd been wearing when an Israeli sniper, lying in one of the many huts dotted along the no man's land on Gaza's eastern border, decided to have a pop.
A father to a three-year-old son.
A 30-year-old making a living.
It was one more terrible tragedy that reminded that few things are worse than slowly becoming what you always hated most, although being on the receiving end is one of those things.
Murtaja had actually studied in other areas but the misery and war in his part of the world, combined with the inability of people to get in or out, has opened up a bizarre pop-up industry for journalists. It saw him become a cameraman, and lately he worked on a film for the Virtual Dinner Guest Project that connects communities by getting them to ask each other one question, which becomes the focus of a film that creates dialogue to try and bring down prejudices. There was a cruel irony that he was part of a crew asking those in Gaza a query posed by those in Rotterdam. 'What are your dreams?'
“He was 100pc committed to peace,” says a colleague who knew him from his AIM Media group. “His family said they aren’t interested in GoFundMe or any of that, they just want his story told.”
We could have brought up the other journalists shot at and injured that day. Or the farmers usually in harms way due to their land being along the buffer zone. Or the 50 or so people including children killed last month for daring to protest in their own country when even Israel has failed to suggest they posed any real risk. Or we could go back across more of the same for many decades.
They all had a story that's largely been ignored thanks to a propaganda battle as one-sided as the military component.
But it's important to understand the individual tales for statistics are faceless and are easier to shrug off. For instance we already know about the breaches of international human rights law; the unlawful killings that, during targeting of civilian structures, amount to war crimes; the forced displacement in breach of Israel's own word and signature; the detention that on occasion amounts to military trial with a near 100 per cent conviction rate, and on other occasion amounts to internment via no trial at all; the methods of torture such as electrocution once in detention; the restriction of movement of those in Gaza, with 70 per cent there in need of humanitarian aid; the settlements that Israel claim to be lawful despite the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Court of Justice, and the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention all saying otherwise.
And what do we do about it? We send big sport there with its overflowing begging bowl and gratitude slapped across its smug face.
On occasion it might be self defence in Israel's case but shooting the intruder in your house doesn't mean you can next take to the local pub armed and on a rampage. In fact the oft-touted threat to Israeli security could be seen again as disingenuous in their bringing the Giro gleefully there without worry. Yet to talk objectively about this Israel brings about a shriek claiming antisemitism that purposely blurs the lines between a religion and a state. But to do that is actually antisemitic in itself for it tethers people of many political beliefs, based solely on that faith, to the actions of a murderous and far-right state.
Nobody in diplomatic spaces stands up and says it and, while not sport's responsibility to step in, it does have a duty of responsibility that at its laziest means staying well away for this isn't anti-anyone, rather pro-morality and pro-decency. For sure, such standards ought to hold true on all sides but in this instance Sylvan Adams was right about one aspect. We aren't talking about the flip-side as this wasn't the Tour of Gaza through rubble-filled streets far worse than Paris-Roubaix, although marketeers could have dubbed it the hell of the Middle-East. It was the Giro in Israel, where some criminals are more equal than others in the eyes of major sport.
What frustrates most however is, when it wants, sport can do much good.
Back in 2013, coming across Tami Hay of the Peres Centre for Peace was refreshing. Founded by former president of Israel, Shimon, the idea was to increase positive relations between Israel and Palestine through numerous initiatives. Sport became one of those in 2002. “It touches the lives of about 1,500 kids from Israel and Palestine from six to 18,” she explained then. “Children are taught tolerance through sport in their community, before coming together with the opposite side five times a year. When that happens, it’s always mixed teams. They are going through different workshop activities together and using sport to break down barriers they carry within themselves; psychological barriers, and also physical because they don’t really have access to the other side ever.”
Former Irish rugby international Trevor Hogan had tried to do his bit through sport as well but Israel refused to see it that way. He finally made it to Gaza, but only after initial attempts saw the ship he was on illegally boarded in international waters. The Israeli navy used water cannons to take out electronics in the wheelhouse; commandos in balaclavas came on board with assault rifles, knives, hand-guns, Tasers and shotguns; windows were smashed; and eventually Hogan and others were carted off to jail for a week. All this and his purpose as a sports ambassador for a charity was to deliver rugby kits donated by Leinster and Munster. Nothing has changed since.
Our own sport has a bad history when it comes to dealing with such states, what with Seán Kelly and Pat McQuaid and the rugby team breaking the blockade with apartheid South Africa and through that past we ought to know better now. Besides, more recently our own treatment has given a clear insight into the workings of Israeli apparatus. Remember 2010 and the lack of fuss when Irish passports were cloned and used by Mossad agents to carry out a murder in Dubai? Remember 2016 and the lack of fuss when their ambassador said it could happen again? Now contrast that with their reaction when the mayor of Dublin simply went to Ramallah lately.
That's the Israel we and the world are failing to deal with and that's what the Giro and all those around it meandered into without the courage to call it out for what it really is. Long gone are the eras of Tommie Smith and of Muhammad Ali and of Jesse Owens. Of moral fibre and of backbone. These days any semblance of outrage left is used stare down Chris Froome and his inhaler.
It's the headline that has remained through it all. Although in its own way it shows the big but silent story to be about sickly sport helping along a sickly society.