Tour de force! The man showing Israel’s true face, with a little help from Messi

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Tour de force! The man showing Israel’s true face, with a little help from Messi

After bringing the Barcelona forward and musical superstar Madonna to Israel, Sylvan Adams looks to cement ties with Arab world through culture

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Sylvan Adams meeting Lionel Messi
Sylvan Adams meeting Lionel Messi

It’s little wonder it took several aborted attempts before finding a window in Sylvan Adams’ diary for this interview.

In the last couple of years he’s arranged for Madonna to perform at the Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv, brought the world’s second biggest cycling race to Israel, saw his Start-Up Nation squad take part in the Tour de France and attended the signing of peace treaties with the UAE and Bahrain.

Every moment Israel has been in the international spotlight in recent times, it seems, the businessman hasn’t been far from the action and his sights are now set on maximising links with the Arab world through sport and music.

A property developer turned self-styled ambassador for Israel since moving to the country five years ago, the 61-year-old has carved out a niche using culture and his not inconsiderable financial clout to bring major events and icons like Lionel Messi to the Jewish state.

His aim: to show a side of Israel beyond the one-dimensional angle portrayed on the news. “Sadly we have to fight just to be considered a normal country,” he laments. “I want people to see the true face of Israel. I get asked if I’m mixing sport and politics but this is cultural diplomacy. I didn’t invent it.”

Sylvan Adams (Credit:Velo Images.)

The Canada-born former world masters cycling champion co-owns the Israel Start-Up Nation team which competed in the Tour de France for the first time last month. The billionaire, who rode part of the famous course ahead of the professionals is clearly still buzzing when we finally catch up on zoom a week later.

He told Jewish News: “When we came through in our blue and white kits with ‘Israel’ on the front we could hear ‘yisrael, yisrael yalla, yalla, yalla’ from tens of thousands of sports fans. We felt the love of these cycling fans and it was absolutely fantastic. I’m so proud of the team and what it represents.”

When it comes to inspiring budding Israeli cyclists he looks to the UK. “‘British cycling is the best in world and it all started with the creation of the National Cycling Centre in Manchester for the Commonwealth Games. It became a feeder. I’m taking a page out of British cycling, trying to replicate that success using the same methods.”

Velo Images.

If his recent creation of the Middle East’s only Olympic-standard velodrome isn’t enough to inspire stars of the future, the signing of British cyclist legend Chris Froome may just do the trick. It wasn’t particularly hard to convince the four-time Tour de France winner to compete under the Israel Start-Up banner, Adams reflected. “He liked the idea of taking a page from British cycling, developing the sport in Israel and being a role model for an entire country.”

And despite some question marks in the media over whether his best days are behind him following injury, his new boss is brimming with confidence.

“Next year we’re going for yellow jerseys and to win the Tour. For as long as we have Chris we’re expecting to fight to be in the hunt to win. Everybody follows the winners and they will be talking about Israel.”

A few days after this interview, fellow Brit Alex Dowsett provided the team’s first stage victory in a major race when he climbed to the top of the podium at the Giro d’Italia.

Adams ‘ambassadorial’ work has brought the media spotlight to a man who was little known outside Canada and his industry a few years ago, and who actively avoided journalists in his professional life. All the business media wanted to know was how much you and your latest project was worth, he said, “It was gossipy and that didn’t interest me.”

Now his product is Israel, he jumps at the chance to talk numbers.

Sylvan training with ICA. Credit: Israel Cycling Academy

A global TV audience of hundreds of millions enjoyed the sights and sounds of Israel when he arranged for Jerusalem to host the start of the Giro in 2018 – a fact he  believes played at least a bit part in a 38 percent surge in tourists the following year.  And international viewers of Eurovision doubled the year when he brought Madonna to headline the kitschy contest in Tel Aviv, drawing in the North American audience.

The philanthropist is convinced more positive exposure is just round the chicane thanks to Formula 1 racer Roy Nissani, who was signed by the British Williams team as a test driver in January and is lined up to race alongside the big boys in 2022.

Adams boldly claims the 25-year-old has the potential to be the next Lewis Hamilton and doesn’t hide his excitement at the prospect of 350m F1 fans seeing his Israeli flag-emblazoned car whizzing round Silverstone.

While nationalism often rightly has negative connotations, he makes no bones about using the word in the context of what he hopes will be a by-product of his projects. ‘Israelis want to be loved,” he said. “When we are seen around the world in a positive way that brings Israelis together. This positive nationalism is a unifier.”

And he hopes to also enthuse the Jewish world on his journey to bolster Israel’s image.

“We are the team of the Jewish people and Israel belongs to all Jews. I want diaspora Jews to be able to able take pride at what’s happening in the country which occupies a place in their hearts. I hope to play a part in reengaging young Jews.”

His endeavours haven’t gone unnoticed by White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, who believes mass cultural projects can complement wider peace efforts, and Adams was later invited to attend the signing of the Abraham Accords.

He enthused: “One couldn’t have dreamed of an event with such natural ease and comfort. Sport, music, technology can encourage normalised interaction between nations in the same way as the UK has open trade with Canada. Israel is a peace-loving country and we want to be accepted in our region. That seems to be happening.”

Months before anyone could have imagined peace breaking out between Israel and Arab states, Start-Up Nation riders participated in an event in the UAE at which fans queued for autographs and water bottles with the word ‘Israel’ on them.

Sylvan Adams with Pope Francis

“I said at the time that when our leaders get round to signing a peace agreement we will have set the conditions for a warm peace because our presence was accepted by the people,” Adams recalled.

While not revealing specifics, he is now working with the UAE and Bahrain to “create symbolically important joint projects”.

While the Israel Start-Up Nation team has been targeted by those pushing boycotts, Adams told his riders ahead of the Tour de France “‘they’re fanatics and their bark is much worse than their bite’.”

There was indeed no significant protest at the race but Adams still believes BDS is “a strategic threat to us. Even though they’re small in number they’re polluting the minds of the silent majority. The more we succeed the more we have an antidote to their poison. One event is not enough, we need to show the silent majority through multiple engagements”.

As you’d expect, this work and his charity giving – he’s the biggest donor to a new children’s hospital which will support the work of Save a Child’s Heart in Holon – is enthusiastically endorsed by Israeli ministers.

Tapping into sport and culture, he insisted, was changing more hearts and minds than the government could hope to but those efforts should be conducted in parallel with the “important work” of defending against “lies and distortions of the haters.”

We have to stand up and say we have a right to exist. But you’re not changing a lot of minds when you do that. I’m reaching more people and I’m appealing to more people than our technical arguments can ever do”.

So who would be his dream guest to bring to Israel? “How can you do better than Messi? he asks, quickly adding. “I’ll have a think and see if we can top it. I’m always looking to top previous projects.” With Adams promising to retire from his ‘ambassadorial’ role only when Israel is widely accepted like any nation, he certainly has his work cut out.

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