While US President Joe Biden traveled to Israel and Saudi Arabia in July to advance normalisation between the two countries, another event was simultaneously promoting the state of Israel on the global stage.
The 2022 Tour de France held last month might have been the most-watched edition of the race in more than a decade, with 41.5 million viewers on French public television alone. Throughout the race’s 21 stages, the eight-member Israel-Premier Tech team put on an unexpectedly strong performance in jerseys that proudly displayed the apartheid state’s name and national colours.
Australian rider Simon Clarke took the team’s first win on stage five, while Canadian rider Hugo Houle earned widespread adulation after winning stage 16. And four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome, who joined Israel-Premier Tech in 2021, recovered from a years-long injury to take third place on the Alpe d’Huez climb.
Tech team was formed in 2014, when Israeli businessman Ron Baron and former professional cyclist Ran Margaliot launched Israel Cycling Academy. Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-born billionaire and amateur cyclist, soon became co-owner of the team, and the Canadian industrial manufacturing firm Premier Tech joined as a title sponsor at the start of this year.
The team’s leadership has sought to recruit well-known riders and gain entry to the most prestigious cycling events. Israel-Premier Tech’s results in this year’s Tour de France show that these efforts have started to pay off, and the team will likely remain visible at the highest levels of professional cycling in the coming years.
But what does this mean for Palestinian advocacy in an age of expanding normalisation with Israel?
Despite its name, Israel-Premier Tech does not represent the Israeli state in any official capacity. Adams has maintained that the team is “not a state project”, noting that sports and politics “should never mix”. But Adams also styles himself as the “self-appointed ambassador for the state of Israel”, and has taken an aggressive approach to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement through “soft diplomacy”.
In addition to Israel-Premier Tech, Adams was the main force behind the Giro d’Italia’s arrival in Israel in 2018, an event he described as the “antidote to BDS”. And his work to normalise Israel through sports extends beyond the world of cycling: He helped bring Lionel Messi and the Argentinian football team to Israel in 2019 for a match against Uruguay, and he is supporting the upcoming Middle Eastern regional Ironman championship in Tiberias.
Members of Israel-Premier Tech have tried to distance themselves from the actions of the Israeli government, saying they just want to “race bikes”. The fact that most of the team’s riders are not Israeli nationals helps in this regard. Out of the 31 riders who race at the World Tour level, only four are Israeli, and only one of those competed on the team’s eight-person roster in this year’s Tour de France.