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Giro d’Italia cycle race to skirt politically-sensitive areas

  • JackSportGiro
There is great excitement in Israel that next year’s Giro d’Italia cycle race will begin in Israel. Cyclists will travel through the Negev Desert, follow the Mediterranean coast and climb the hills around Jerusalem, but the one place riders will avoid is Jerusalem’s Old City.
by JACK MILNER | Nov 23, 2017

While it is accepted that the race these days starts outside Italy, this is the first time it will set off outside Europe. It will start in Jerusalem and include two additional stages in Israel.

But race organisers have ensured the route will not go through any land considered “occupied” by the international community. Race director Mauro Vegni, said he was aware of the political sensitivities and had drawn up the course with the guidance of the Italian Foreign Ministry.

“The reality is that we want it to be a sports event and stay away from any political discussion,” Vegni told The Associated Press.

Avoiding politics, however, is difficult when dealing with Jerusalem. Israel considers east Jerusalem an inseparable part of its capital, while the Palestinians claim the area as their capital.

At the centre of the conflict is East Jerusalem, as both Jews and Muslims have emotional claims to the Old City. With an opening 10,1 km individual time trial in Jerusalem on May 4, followed by two flat road stages traversing the country, the race will break no sporting ground.

Yet by showcasing Israel amid cultural and artistic boycotts, the 2018 Giro’s huge attraction brings an unprecedented level of political controversy to cycling’s second biggest event.

To deal with this, the opening stage will carefully avoid the city’s invisible pre-1967 boundaries. Riders will be able to glimpse the ancient walls of the Old City, but they will not enter it or any Palestinian neighbourhoods. Other stages are planned along the Mediterranean coast, and in the Red Sea resort of Eilat.

The Italian Foreign Ministry told Ha’aretz they had helped Italian race organisers “get a better understanding of the broader political context” and make sure the “routes are inside the pre-1967 borders”.

The Giro is one of cycling’s prestigious Grand Tour races, along with the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta. It’s an achievement for Giro organisers RCS Sport to go beyond the borders of Europe ahead of rival ASO, who organises the Tour de France and the Vuelta.

The matching of cycle race and an overseas host, goes back to 1954 when the Tour de France began in Amsterdam. The Giro followed in 1965 with a visit to San Marino and has since been as far afield as Greece, Denmark and Northern Ireland.

Today hosts pay tens of millions of euros for television cameras to focus in on cherry-picked landscapes and historic monuments. Race organisers revel in the razzmatazz of a novel location that is prepared to pay the hefty fee. Just how much their Israeli partners paid to bring the race to the Holy Land, Giro organisers would not say.

Foreign dignitaries rarely enter east Jerusalem, and when they do visit, such as President Donald Trump’s trip to the Old City last May, it is usually done privately.

However, Palestinian officials are angered by the race’s promotional material that shows the Old City. A photo on the Giro’s Twitter account shows the Spanish cycling great Alberto Contador with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in front of the Old City, and a video on Facebook shows footage of the Western Wall and other sites inside the Old City.

Palestinian Ambassador in Rome May Kaileh, said her embassy is putting pressure on the race to remove the photos. Palestinian Sports Minister Jibril Rajoub, called the photographs an “issue of misunderstanding” and said he hopes they will be removed.

“The most important thing for us, the race is not entering the 1967 boundaries, including east Jerusalem,” he said.

However, Omar Barghouti, Palestinian co-founder of the anti-Israel boycott movement, called on the Giro to cancel the Israel stages altogether and move the race elsewhere.

Promotional material that “deceptively” portrays east Jerusalem as part of Israel, and working with an Israeli partner that does business in settlements in “illegally occupied territory” amount to “shameful complicity” in Israeli rights violations, he said.

Barghouti also promised pro-Palestinian demonstrations if the race takes place in Israel.

“Civil society organisations in Palestine, Italy and throughout Europe, are mobilising to convince participating teams, sponsors and cycling federations to pressure Giro d’Italia to relocate the race,” he said. “Giro d’Italia can expect nonviolent, lively protests if it insists on whitewashing Israel’s occupation and apartheid.”

Vegni, the Giro director, rejected the criticism. “I hope that it’s treated as a sports event. And I hope it’s treated as a sports event by the Palestinians also,” he said.

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