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‘It’s not called sportswashing, it’s called sport’: Sylvan Adams interview

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7 Feb 2020
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Words & Pictures Peter Stuart

Sylvan Adams is a two-time World Masters Time-Trial Champion, co-owner of WorldTour team Israel Start-Up Nation and architect of the Giro’s 2018 Grande Partenza in Israel. He’s reportedly worth $1.5 billion.

At the team’s training camp in Israel, Adams sat down with Cyclist for a beer and a lengthy chat.

Cyclist: Why have you chosen to invest in cycling?

Sylvan Adams: I competed as a master, not only in track cycling but I’m also a six-time Canadian road champion, and what I liked about it was that nobody knew who I was and nobody cares who you are, and nobody cares what you do for a living. 

I love sports as a fan, and I believe in it as a bridge builder between diverse people. Maybe, with this team, in a little way, I can move the needle and help foster world peace.

Cyclist: How did you get involved with the team?

Adams: I was minding my own business and the team manager, Ran Margaliot, sent me an email and said: ‘Listen, I’ve heard nice things about you and would you like to go for a bike ride?' We started to talk and they invited me to be on the board of the team.

I started negotiating to bring the Giro start here, and I realised that we needed to be ProConti otherwise we wouldn’t have an opportunity to have a wildcard invitation as a wildcard team. So we talked about it and I stepped up my investment in the team so we went up to ProConti a year early. I’m now a co-owner.

Cyclist: What is your overall goal for Israel Start-Up Nation?

Adams: We’re perceived as a warzone here in Israel, that we’re in a state of conflict. I want this team to speak to the world about Israel as a country. I want people to see that we are free, open, tolerant, diverse, and most importantly safe.

I don’t know if you know about my other projects in Israel, but I brought Lionel Messi here for a friendly football match, and I brought Madonna over for the Eurovision. I’m doing a number of extraordinary things to speak to the world about Israel as a country.

Cyclist: What image do you want to project of Israel?

Adams: Is it your first time here? Are you surprised? Of course you are. All first timers are surprised when they come here. They say, 'The stuff that they’ve been selling us! This isn’t the country that I’ve been shown!'

I’m not blaming the reporters, but you know bad news sells. So there are no stories to be written about how the sun rose over the Mediterranean and life was good and everybody was having a beer, because that’s not a good story.

Of course we live in a bit of a rough neighbourhood, and we have issues with our neighbours, but that’s not the whole story. By just focusing on one aspect of life here, you are necessarily distorting the true picture and necessarily creating, and I hate to say it, fake news.

When I brought the Giro here and we had helicopter footage from the north to the south over three beautiful days, people saw it and it looked like the Giro. Really, it was fantastic.

So when we race the Tour de France that’s going to expose us to 3 billion people, they’ll see this Israeli team and this true picture of Israel.

Cyclist: You’ve spoken about having a Palestinian rider on the team. Is that still an ambition?

Adams: If we could get a Palestinian rider on the team, what a statement that would make! That we can get along and that people can get along. I think it’s a powerful statement and we can maybe change the world a little bit through sport.

On our team we have a Druze rider, and we now have a Muslim rider from Morocco on the Continental team, El Mehdi Chokri. We’re not an affirmative action programme, and riders need to have the right level, but if there are good Muslim riders out there we would look more favourably on them as telling our story of peace and brotherhood and harmony.

I want to add something about Israeli society. We have a 20% Arab minority, and we have Arab doctors and nurses. We have policemen, we have Arab diplomats, including ambassadors who represent Israel abroad. We have Arab judges, including on the Supreme Court of the country. That’s the Israel people don’t see.

I’m reaching sports fans who don’t dislike us. I’m not talking to the haters; haters gonna hate, and you know we live in a happier world. We don’t hate, we’re open, we’re free-thinking people. I’d rather live in our world. The world’s a little sunnier and nicer in our world rather than spewing hate all the time.

Cyclist: How do you react to claims that the team is ‘sportswashing’ for Israel?

Adams: In Tel Aviv we have a very large gay community and we have one of the biggest gay pride parades in the world, and people say that’s ‘pinkwashing’.

They say the Giro was sportswashing. And I say everything we do is washing if you choose to view it that way. We sent a project to the Moon, did you know that? I was one of the partners in that. So what was that? Moonwashing?

We’re not trying to cover up our sins and wash them away with something. Actually we’re just being ourselves and it’s not washing, it’s sport. It’s not called sportwashing, it’s called sport.

To people who say that, I say: you’re the political one, I don’t have a political angle here. I love my country and I’m patriotic, just like you are I hope for your country or wherever you come from.

By the way, I think nationalism can be a positive force. But remember, my parents are Holocaust survivors and I’ve seen what the excesses of ultranationalism can do. Distorted, tunnel-visioned, chauvinistic nationalism can be a negative force.

Cyclist: Did you have discussions with any other teams about a merger with Israel Cycling Academy before you found Katusha?

Adams: I had a deal with this fantastic WorldTour team. I can’t tell you which one it is. It was confidential.

It was understood that we would be the dominant controlling shareholder and would continue to be an Israeli team. We had a handshake deal, but they were rescued by a sponsor last second. I understood this wasn’t their first choice, this was clearly their second choice. I probably met and had different discussions with 10 teams. This Katusha opportunity came up pretty late.

Cyclist: Why did you feel the move to WorldTour was so important?

Adams: ProContinental is just a tough gig. It’s ridiculously expensive, and you’re not able to draw sponsors because you never know what sort of race invitations you’re going to receive.

From 2019 to 2020 there are six fewer Pro Conti teams.

Six.

Two are moving up to WorldTour, but the rest are moving down or disappearing altogether.

Cyclist: Do you think there’s a problem with the financing of pro cycling?

Adams: Our sport has to change. Look at football – Arsenal sells tickets, Arsenal collects TV revenue, sponsorship is really a miscellaneous revenue category for Arsenal and all their football teams, and yet in cycling we live and die by sponsorship.

Take names, for instance. Everyone changes their name in cycling. Miguel Indurain won his Grand Tours with Banesto, and what team is Banesto today? If you follow the genealogy you’ll come up to Movistar. How many people know that?

It’s a ridiculous way to run a sport, where the franchise changes its name because of sponsors. Arsenal will never ever change its name, nor will the New York Yankees.

Cyclist: We’ve seen other benefactors sweep into the sport in recent years and leave it abruptly, disbanding teams in the process. Why is your relationship with Israel Start-Up different?

Adams: Yes there have been teams that have disappeared. Look at Igor Makarov from Katusha, or Tinkoff. There have been a bunch of people who come into the sport and eventually get fatigued and go home. I’ve been asked a lot – is this going to be my story?

If you look at the work I’ve been doing by bringing Messi and all those other things, this isn’t about vanity. My name isn’t on the jersey, my country is on the jersey. I’ve moved here and the next chapter of my life will be dedicated to promoting Israel. I see this project as having long legs and I can’t see an issue with sticking with it.