Israel’s only professional cycling team signed an Eritrean refugee living in Sweden to the team on Monday, as it geared up to to help host the start of the 2018 Giro D’Italia, one of the world’s biggest bike races.
The move by the Israel Cycling Academy came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been ramping up his bid to begin mass deportations of Eritrean asylum-seekers in March.
Team general manager Ran Margaliot said the team’s decision to sign Awet Gebremedhin, a 25-year-old Eritrean refugee currently living in Sweden, wasn’t meant as a political statement, despite the current situation in Israel and attitudes toward refugees.
“Awet is a special rider, based on his personal story and also his abilities,” said Margaliot. “We are not a political movement, we’re a sports team, and regardless of whatever your opinion is on any specific topic, we believe that sports is about connecting people,” he said. “Everybody deserves a chance, regardless of where they come from. We are proud of Awet for being a part of us. It shows that if you work hard you can get to the top of the sport.”
Last week, government ministers approved a plan to imprison illegal African migrants who refuse to leave Israel “voluntarily.”
The prime minister was also reportedly seeking ways to forcibly expel undocumented asylum seekers, to reduce strain on the prison system. On Tuesday night, hundreds of people protested in Tel Aviv’s Neve Shaanan neighborhood against the deportations. They clashed with a group of local residents in favor of the deportations who accuse the African migrants of destroying the the neighborhood.
Gebremedhin was a professional rider on the Eritrean national team when he absconded during a race in Italy in 2013 and then escaped to Sweden to apply for refugee status.
During the 18-month-long process to receive refugee status Gebremedhin stayed hidden in his friend’s apartment, worried that he could be sent back to Eritrea if he went outside and was questioned. Because he was unable to go outside or exercise, Gebremedhin sometimes almost starved himself in order to keep his body lean for racing.
In November 2015, he was declared a legal refugee. He spent three months collecting bottles, saving money from the deposits to buy his own bicycle so he could begin training again.
In 2017 Gebremedhin trained with an amateur team called Marco Polo, but the team folded after one season. Gebremedhin joined an Israel Cycling Academy training camp last month and accepted a spot on their development squad.
He was asked to join after a spot opened up on the roster when Turkish rider Ahmet Orken requested a release from his two-year contract following political pressure over US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month.
“I still cannot believe it,” Gebremedhin said in a statement. “I waited for this opportunity almost all my life and there were moments of darkness and despair when I almost lost any hope that this miracle could actually happen. But now, everything that I had to go through, it all seems worth it.”
This is Israel Cycling Academy’s first year competing at the Pro Continental level, which is the equivalent of a Division II team. Previously, the team competed at a Continental (Division III) level since it’s founding in 2014. There are 24 members from 16 countries on the current team, including five Israelis.
The development team consists of 60 promising Israeli riders, all of whom are currently serving in the Israeli Defense Forces as soldiers with a special dispensation for athletes that allows them three months of travel to international competitions each year during their service. Gebremedhin had been the only non-Israeli and non-IDF soldier on the development team.
The Israel Cycling Academy is under the spotlight as Israel prepares to host the start of the Giro D’Italia, the world’s premier cycling race after the Tour de France, from May 4 to 6. The 196 riders will spend the first three days of the 21-day course in Israel, starting with an individual time trial in Jerusalem, before riding 180 kilometers in the Acre and Haifa area and 210 kilometers from Beer Sheba to Eilat. The cyclists will then fly to Italy for the remainder of the race, ending in Rome or the Vatican.
It is the first time that one of the three major cycling races – the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a Espana – will have parts of the course in a location outside of Europe.
“I believe this Giro can become our breakthrough to really turn this sport into a mainstream sport in Israel,” said Margaliot, who hopes that the Giro will help cycling attain the level of judo among Israeli sports. Israel’s strongest sport on the Olympic circuit is currently judo, and judokas are beloved national heroes.
Israel’s first Velodrome, an indoor high-speed racing circuit where riders race on a specially sloped track that allows them to ride almost perpendicular to the ground, is expected to be completed in Tel Aviv’s Hadar Yosef neighborhood in September. “This means a completely new Olympic sport will be open to Israeli athletes,” said Margaliot.
Ahead of the Giro, the Israel Cycling Academy will be coordinating with a number of cities to run children’s programs and public races, including a special event at the annual Cycling Jerusalem ride around the city, which will take place a week before the Giro.
“We believe that we have a great opportunity to promote this sport so that kids will have a proper hunger to ride a bike,” said Margaliot. “We want to get people out of their iPhones and on their bike.”