To go, or not to go

The hedgehog house arrived and I placed it in a quiet corner of the garden and put some dry straw inside so it’s ready for some prickly residents to move in. I expect a hedgehoggy estate agent is sizing it up and emphasising its best features as I write.

I’ve spent the bulk of the past couple of days recording my chapters of The Cycling Podcast’s book for the forthcoming audiobook. I had hoped to finish part four of the series Eight Years Covering Team Sky by now but I haven’t had the time to sit down and write it yet, but it's coming.

Yesterday I booked my flight to Tel Aviv to cover the opening weekend of the Giro d’Italia and I have to say I did so with a sense of unease. When we first discussed this issue on The Cycling Podcast we received a lot of emails. We had tried to be fair by covering both sides of the story and as a result we received criticism from both sides.

As a journalist I’m generally okay with that – I think that if people from both ends of the spectrum are criticising then I’ve probably struck a reasonable balance. However, I am aware that this is not just a sports story, it’s about people’s lives and the balance of power.

Some of the criticism was beyond the pale, though, and felt like it was part of a co-ordinated campaign, which opened my eyes to what we are stepping into by covering a bike race in Jerusalem. I am not an expert on Middle Eastern history and politics and so I’ve had a lot of catching up to do but it strikes me that the Giro d’Italia organisers are way out of their depths here, as are we, probably.

Some people think we shouldn’t go, and I respect that point, but our job is to cover the three grand tours and say what we see. We’re going there to report on a bike race and if the atmosphere is tense, if security feels oppressive, or if it feels like some airbrushing is going on, we’ll say that. A few people have suggested we pick the race up when it arrives in Sicily and as much as that sounds appealing to me I think it’s an easy way out.

I remember being in Belfast for the start of the 2014 Giro d’Italia. I do not want to be accused of drawing a clumsy comparison between the situation with Israel and Palestine and the Troubles, but I do remember a taxi driver saying how nice it was to drive round the city and see all the pink bunting and balloons up instead of sectarian green and orange. Sport can have the power to heal divides but – correct me if I am wrong – I don’t get the sense that the motivation for inviting the Giro to Jersusalem was to bring people together.

The issue of boycotting sporting events because of geo-political tensions is pertinent at the moment after the poisoning of the Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury and the calls for England’s participation in the World Cup to be reconsidered. (I’ll resist the temptation to make the obvious joke, that England could compromise by offering to play the first three matches before coming home, because it’s been made already.)

As I said on the podcast recently, it is wilfully naïve to think that sport and politics should not mix. They are intertwined.

The question for me is where to draw the line. Great Britain competed in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow when the Cold War was at its frostiest. Many people celebrated the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, the captial of a nation with a very dubious human rights record. The 2022 football World Cup will be held in Qatar and we keep hearing about the shocking working conditions and numerous deaths for the imported labourers who are building the stadia.

In cycling, the Bahrain and UAE regimes sponsor World Tour teams and Amnesty International’s reports on the two states make troubling reading, and yet they ride shoulder-to-shoulder in the peloton with barely any discussion of the wider issues.

It’s been suggested that by going to Israel we are tacitly accepting the situation, but I don’t agree with that. Not going would be interpreted as an unequivocal political statement. Going, and keeping our eyes, ears and minds open while trying to tread as impartial a line as possible, will – at the very least – enhance my understanding of the situation and is not an endorsement of one side or the other.