Verticalities of the Mega-Event: The Israeli Giro D’Italia


Samuel Mutter is an MPhil/PhD researcher in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. His interests include issues of urban politics, security, space and aesthetics, while his current research project examines the governance of circulation and disruption on the London Underground network.


The 2018 edition of the Giro D’Italia, one of the three ‘Grand Tours’ of men’s professional cycling – alongside the Vuelta a España and, of course, the Tour De France – began in unusual fashion. Rather than starting in any part of Italy, the cyclists set off from the Western, Israeli-controlled side of Jerusalem. The 2nd and 3rd stages were also held in Israel – from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and then from Be’er Sheva to Eilat – before the race returned to more familiar territory for the 4th stage in Catania, Italy. At first, this could simply be taken as an indication of the sport’s increasingly global reach and popularity (while in France, its homeland, it has begun to be thought of as out of date; an old man’s game). Indeed, this is by no means the first time the opening stage of a Grand Tour has set off from abroad. In its 101st edition, this was the 13th time the Giro had started outside Italy. Nor are the other Grand Tours strangers to foreign beginnings: the ‘Grand Depart’ of the 2014 Tour de France, for instance, was held in Leeds, Yorkshire, before making its way south to London, and skipping across the channel.

However, two things make the Israeli Giro stages stand out. First of all, unlike the UK, where cycling as a sport (as well as a middle-class urban lifestyle; all lycra, sourdough, and frothed milk) has boomed over recent years – especially since the success of the Great Britain track team in the 2012 London Olympic velodrome, and the subsequent Tour de France victories of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome under the auspices of Team Sky (asthma and Jiffy bags notwithstanding) – Israel cannot be said to be in the grips of cycling fever. While thought of as a trendy way of getting around in Tel Aviv, the country has little to no historical pedigree in biking as a competitive sport.[1] If the Israeli Giro is representative of an infectious uptake of cycling in Israel, it is not the symptom but the first case.

Secondly, there is the matter of geographical distance. Whereas the finishing line for the 3rd stage of the 2014 Tour de France in London was 163 kilometres, or three hours on the Eurostar, from the location of the 4th stage start at Le Touquet, the trip from the Israeli city of Eilat to Catania in Italy was over twelve times that distance: roughly 2000 km. One can only imagine the delight with which a bunch of high performance endurance athletes greeted the news that they would have to deal not only with the usual successions of gruelling climbs, slippery descents, and complex team strategies – not to mention the occasionally overly tactile, clumsy spectator – but minor jetlag too!

The official reasoning for the decision to stage the Giro in Israel was as a memorial to the three-time winner of the race, the Italian Gino Bartali (b.1914-d.2000) who, during the Holocaust, had helped rescue hundreds of Italian Jews. This is, of course, a fitting tribute. Nonetheless, it is the sort of justification which, while legitimate, also suggests a deficit of explanation; a ‘yes, but…’, or a ‘yes this, but also something more…’. In answer to the question begged by this something more, one can look to Sylvan Adams, the multi-millionaire Canadian-Israeli cycling enthusiast behind the bid to host the Giro. In interviews carried out in the build up to the race, Adams cites two primary motivations for this idea (and Bartali’s legacy is neither): one, to boost the popularity of cycling in Israel, and two, to promote Israel to the world.[2]

It is this second motivation which – in the context of a contested city (Jerusalem) and an Israeli state which relies, even more than most, on tourism as a form of ‘soft power’ – begs further examination. The nature of the question I want to ask, however, is not, first and foremost, a question of Israeli-Palestinian politics – I am not an expert on this unbelievably complex topic. If anything, it is more about cycling, or about the nature of the cycling ‘tour’ as a type of ‘mega-event’. The question, then, is not primarily: ‘Why did Israel want to host the Giro?’ – the answer, as we have already seen, is obvious and explicit – but rather: “Why is cycling so well-suited to doing this kind of work?”; “why cycling, rather than something else?”.

I want to speculate on a particular spatial and political reasoning which may have played a part in this slightly odd phenomenon. Specifically, I would like to put forward the idea that the cycling tour, as compared to other more famous ‘mega-events’, entails a unique set of visualities – vertical, dispersed and mobile – which in turn provides economically, politically and ideologically-motivated actors with a set of visual and discursive tools not found in other sports events. These tools have long been deployed by the hosts of cycling tours for the promotion of individual places, but the Israeli Giro draws attention to a more interesting possibility: cycling’s capacity for constructing territories by demonstrating them as coherent spaces; legible and beautiful wholes bound together by the cyclist’s wheels and the lenses which bear witness to their rotation.

“The cameras will be on us”: The Cycling Tour as Mega-Event

Boyle and Haggerty define ‘mega-events’ as “high-profile, deeply symbolic affairs that typically circulate from host city to host city”.[3] They are characterised by an intense level of media attention which “offers an opportunity to promote a distinctive image of the city to a global audience that can, it is hoped, consolidate its position within the global hierarchy of cities”.[4] Cycling races, viewed in relation to this definition, can be characterised as a particular kind of mega-event. Though the Grand Tours appear fixed in location, with a certain ‘place-ness’ stitched into the fabric of each race – culturally and historically, but also materially, via the specific feel of the road surfaces[5] – the increasingly common decision to allow them to start elsewhere has opened them up to the circulation which Boyle and Haggerty mention. With the 2018 Giro’s unprecedented start outside Europe, it looks as if the potential field of this circulation is expanding, opening cycling up to a bidding process over access to a growing crowd of global spectators.

More specifically though, as a mega-event the cycling tour shares with its more famed counterparts – Olympic Games, World Cups, F1 Grand Prixs, and so on – a particular set of visualities. They are all characterised by the frequency of the view from the air. How often, for example, does a major televised sporting fixture begin with a look at the stadium from the perspective of the helicopter- (or, perhaps, drone-) borne camera, situating the event within the city before zooming in; coming down to ‘pitch-side’ and the plethora of angles, close-ups and slow-motion replays compiling the narrative of any particular game? In the case of the Tour de France, four helicopters capture the race from above, using gyro-stabilised camera systems to ensure image quality, whilst on the ground five motorcycles follow the action up close.[6] The transmission of the images depends upon a complex network of satellite relays in both trucks and planes, together with the work of the broadcasting director – for the Tour de France, this is a man named Jean-Maurice Ooghe – who cuts together the pictures into a coherent stream.[7]

We should remember that the view from the air is significant historically and politically, with its origins in military surveillance and aerial bombing.[8] Feeding off this legacy, the aerial view of the players on the pitch provides to the TV spectator what in military terminology is known as situational awareness. Much more than from the stands, watching on TV gives us some idea of the positions of all the players in relation to one-another. As well as the ‘action’, we can also see ‘where the space is’, how the play is likely to develop in the near-future, and, indeed, what really happened “just then”; in the near-past. In other words, this viewpoint allows us to engage in techniques of prediction and analysis. It is managerial and strategic, the perfect aspect from which to survey the (battle)field. And this is precisely why such a view was developed in the first place: to give militaries a clearer aspect from which to arrange their own forces, to counter the moves of the enemy, and to target their assets and personnel in the most efficient and destructive ways possible.[9]

The role of this downward gaze in military targeting has meant that, especially in periods of war, cities and nations have been built or governed so as to be vertically disguised. The examples are numerous, ranging from the Blackout in WWII Britain, to the dependence of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories on complex systems of tunnels used to transport weapons, people, and commercial goods out of sight of Israeli drones.[10] If these war-torn geographies intend to hide themselves from the vertical gaze, then the landscapes of so-called ‘global’ cities are driven by an opposing motivation. Their lifeblood a continuous stream of FDI and tourism, they are designed with vertical aesthetics in mind. Stephen Graham has charted the importance of this consideration for the emirate of Dubai in particular – a landscape dominated by skyscrapers (most recently, the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2722 feet), and a coastline that has been rendered into a sort of vertical advertising hoarding, with artificial island complexes built to be viewed from the sky: three resembling palm trees, one (roughly) depicting a map of the world.[11]

In a temporary and less cynical way, something similar has been going on in the three Grand Tours for a long time. As the helicopter follows the cyclists along the road, it is not uncommon to see that the towns or regions they pass through have set up elaborate visual displays, usually from carefully arranged flowerbeds, trimmed grassland, or ginormous pieces of fabric, which promote the culture or produce of the area to the TV viewers looking down from above (see Figure 1). This is not merely an opportunistic occurrence – the host broadcaster coordinates with the French Farmers Union well in advance of the race, noting cultural monuments within a 15km radius of the course, and registering precise GPS coordinates for where visual displays will be placed.[12] The promotional aspect is thus much more than a sideshow. Indeed Jean-Maurice Ooghe describes his job as “broadcast[ing] as exactly as possible the scenario of the Tour – both the sporting aspect and the touristic aspect, because many viewers are more concerned with discovering the beauty of France”.[13]

Figure 1: A visual display seen in the 2012 Tour de France promoting the Petites Cités Comtoises de Caractère (PCCC), a group of 38 protected villages in the east of France (source: Pinterest)

Cycling’s Mobile Gaze: Selective Vision and the Binding of Space

The history of professional cycling is informed not only by the intention to advertise individual places – putting certain towns or regions in the shop window – but also with the capacity to exploit the motion of the cyclists to performatively bind these places together. For instance, the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic, arguably the oldest surviving event in cycling, was devised in 1896 by two Roubaix factory owners looking to promote their recently-constructed velodrome in the town.[14] Rather than just hosting races within their self-contained track, the masterstroke was to show Roubaix’s connectivity with Paris; the joining up of province and metropole, and the declaration of the province as the destination.

In this sense the unique nature of cycling’s vertical gaze is its dispersion, and what’s more its mobility. The ‘Tour’ is evidently not just for the cyclists on the road; it is also for the spectator sitting at home. As such, the tour will always be visually selective, and the route will always depend to a certain extent upon the collection of images the organisers want to bring together. The marathon, which is similar to the cycling Tour in this way (if not quite on the same scale) is always arranged around the most attractive monuments of a city, and always excludes spaces which, for one reason or another, do not suit the image which the city wants to project of itself. The marathon at the 2012 London Olympics, for example – despite the claims of organisers that this was to be the East London Games – was re-routed from its initial planned course, where it was set to go through the deprived area of Tower Hamlets, leaving the ‘Olympic borough’ with no Olympic events.[15]

While a marathon can compile the city through its 26 mile route, the cycling tour can compile whole nations. As Sylvan Adams said of the Israeli Giro, “As many as a billion viewers will see the country on display, the full country…Cycling takes place outdoors, and for three days, the cameras will be on us for 16 hours showing the country from north to south”.[16] The significance of the ‘full’ or ‘whole’ country is discursively vital to nearly every expression of nationalism, but nowhere is it more precious than in the contested city of Jerusalem. The cycling Tour thus facilitates a tying together of Jerusalem with less controversially ‘Israeli’ territories. This is a constructive and ideological move, the nation bound together by the wheels of the cyclists and by the cameras following them along the road, presenting the nation’s cohesiveness as naturally given.[17] Therefore, when the race organisers RCS Sport initially stated on their website that the first stage would be taking place in ‘West Jerusalem’, accurately portraying the course and implying the divisions of the city, they were immediately scolded by Israel’s ministers for both sport and tourism, who threatened to withdraw Israel from the staging of the event if the language was not changed. RCS were then castigated by human rights groups for quickly bowing to the pressure.[18]

The integration of monuments, memories and histories into a coherent space is even more surreptitious for the fact that it happens off the side of the track, away from the action, but, importantly, still within the visual frame. The course is not just a track, even when it is officially bounded – it always remains a road; a part of the city and of territory. And, moreover, even whilst the racers and the commentators attempt to maintain focus on the event at hand, the vertical gaze has a tendency to stray and roam. Thus, 4 minutes and 41 seconds into Eurosport’s coverage of the 1st stage time trial, the host broadcaster’s shot is taken up by the helicopter, which holds focus on the golden dome of Temple Mount – or what Muslims know as Haram esh-Sharif – for almost a minute (see Figure 2). Despite the words of the commentator Rob Hatch, speaking to the images – “…as we get our first views from the air of the West side of Jerusalem” – what the viewer is looking at is of course the Old City, beyond the line of control, and beyond the bounds of the race itself (see Figures 3 & 4).

Figure 2: An aerial view of Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif captured by the helicopter (screenshot). The subtext at the base of the image provides brief reference to the religious differences embodied in the site.

Figure 3: The Route of the Stage 1 time trial, West Jerusalem (source: giroditalia.it)

It could be argued that the route of the stage – first coming away from the Old City and then back towards it, finishing up as close as possible to its gates, skirting its walls without breaching them – allows or encourages the aerial gaze to peer, out of curiosity, over the fence (see Figure 3). Comments made by Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat – a man who has just announced the naming of a roundabout in Jerusalem, opposite the site of the new US embassy, after President Trump[19] – rejected this political dimension entirely, stating that “We chose the route by beauty and not by anything else”.[20] In doing so, he mobilised a particular kind of aesthetics; aesthetics as ‘just beauty’, opposed to or outside of politics. But whether intended to capture only beauty, the vertical gaze reaches out and collects – surveillance and reconnaissance. The gate is jumped; the Old City is brought into the Western one, and this is achieved innocently without conflict or confrontation.

Figure 4: Political Map of Jerusalem (Source: http://brewminate.com/jerusalems-political-map/; Map data by Daniel Seidemann/Terrestrial Jerusalem. Labeling by NPR.  Credit: Daniel Estrin, Alyson Hurt, Larry Kaplow, Brittany Mayes and Greg Myre/NPR)

Conclusion

‘Mega-events’ are increasingly important features of today’s political and economic landscape of global cities. As recent football World Cups in Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018) have aptly demonstrated, such events are worthy of critical examination for their remarkable ability to cover a multitude of political sins, with pre-tournament scepticism and debate inevitably (and often rapidly) giving way to excitement over what is happening on the field of play, and praise for the hosts in orchestrating ‘successful’, ‘fun’ and ‘safe’ events. In this article, I have tried to elaborate on this general point by drawing attention both to the specific visualities utilised in efforts to construct desired images of space, and to the ways in which different types of mega-event may offer different opportunities to this end. As opposed to a World Cup, which ‘works’ by directing the gaze towards individual venues and sites deemed in keeping with a desired image (whilst directing it away from those which are not)[21], the cycling Tour as mega-event works on the move, enabling a potentially much more dynamic set of processes unfolding across space.

In the Israeli case, the Giro, together with the gaze which pursues it, allows for a number of politico-ideological constructions to be engineered simultaneously, at differing but complementary scales. Firstly, the staging of such a mega-event (taken generically) helps to legitimise Israel – and its main cities – within the international order, and especially consolidates its status as a ‘Western’ nation-state. At the same time however, the mobile and touristic aspect unique to cycling functions on a national scale, suturing that doubtful city of ‘Jerusalem’ to other less dubiously Israeli conurbations. The proficiency with which the cyclists roll by, covering the ground from Jerusalem, to Haifa, to Tel Aviv, and so on, performs for all to see the spatial continuity and beauty of the nation. And, finally, at the very moment that West Jerusalem is being traversed, visual zooms, cuts, pans and wanderings erode the complexity of the divided city. If only tentatively or accidentally, they reduce the Old City and East Jerusalem to a stable and complete image of ‘Jerusalem’, visually (if not physically) undifferentiated from its Western side. Selected monuments are lifted out of their contested geographies, and drawn into a pleasing collage otherwise consisting of streamlined bodies, angular faces, cheering spectators, and, along the roadside, Israeli flags. Meanwhile linguistic fluctuations: “West Jerusalem…Jerusalem…” question the presence of any outside being excluded; question the presence of any political dilemma whatsoever.

With the continued growth of cycling’s global audience, its potential weight as a visual and discursive tool – capable not just of sweeping things under the rug, but also of reshaping and even producing territory – is likely to increase. As such, it will be increasingly important to study the political effects of hosting Grand Tours, not only by tracing their circulation as one of a number of mega-events, but also by examining in detail the characteristics and mechanisms which are particular to how cycling is done and seen.


[1] The Guardian (2016), ‘The transformation of Tel Aviv: how cycling got cool in Israel’s hippest city’; CNN (2018), ‘Giro d’Italia: Cycling Classic begins with historic Israel visit’.

[2] CNN (2018), Op. Cit.

[3] Boyle, P. & Haggerty, K. (2009). ‘Spectacular Security: Mega-Events and the Security Complex’, p.257.

[4] Ibid.

[5] This can be said of road racing more broadly. For example, while the one-day ‘Cobbled Classics’ of France and Belgium are famed for their bone-shaking pavé surfaces, races in England tend to make for slower rides as a result of the type of tarmac used on its roads, which creates more friction with the wheels.

[6] Lowe, F. (2016), ‘Stars of Stage and Screen: Broadcasting the Tour de France’.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See for example Virilio, P. (1989). War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London & New York: Verso.

[9] See Hippler, T. (2017). Governing from the Skies: A Global History of Aerial Bombing. London & New York: Verso.

[10] See Weizman, E. (2007). Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London & New York: Verso; Graham, S. (2004). ‘Cities as Strategic Sites: Place Annihilation and Urban Geopolitics’.

[11] Graham, S. (2016). Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers. London & New York: Verso.

[12] Lowe, F. (2016). Op. Cit.

[13] Quoted in ibid.

[14] Cyclist Magazine (2018). ‘Paris-Roubaix 2018: Route, start list and all you need to know’.

[15] Fussey et al., (2012). ‘The regeneration games: purity and security in the Olympic city’, p.277.

[16] CNN (2018). Op. Cit. Italics mine.

[17] See Dikeç, M. (2012). ‘Immigrants, Banlieues, and Dangerous Things: Ideology as an Aesthetic Affair’.

[18] Telegraph (2017). ‘Giro d’Italia organisers caught in political storm over ‘West Jerusalem’ reference’.

[19] Times of Israel (2018). ‘Jerusalem traffic circle to be named for US and Trump’.

[20]  CNN (2018). Op. Cit.

[21] The image which most comes to mind here is the blurred blue and red backdrop to the BBC’s 2014 World Cup studio in Rio provided by the police cars lining the streets of the city – the lingering reminder that protests were taking place.


Bibliography

Boyle, P. & Haggerty, K. (2009). ‘Spectacular Security: Mega-Events and the Security Complex’. International Political Sociology, 3: 257-274.

CNN (2018). ‘Giro d’Italia: Cycling Classic begins with historic Israel visit’. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/05/04/sport/giro-ditalia-preview-jerusalem-cycling-spt/index.html

Cyclist Magazine (2018). ‘Paris-Roubaix 2018: Route, start list and all you need to know’. Available at: http://www.cyclist.co.uk/in-depth/1015/paris-roubaix-2018-route-riders-and-all-you-need-to-know/page/0/1

Dikeç, M. (2012). ‘Immigrants, Banlieues, and Dangerous Things: Ideology as an Aesthetic Affair’. Antipode, 45(1): 23-42.

Fussey, P. Coaffee, J. Armstrong, G. & Hobbs, D. (2012). ‘The regeneration games: purity and security in the Olympic city’, The British Journal of Sociology, 63(2): 260-284.

Graham, S. (2004). ‘Cities as Strategic Sites: Place Annihilation and Urban Geopolitics’. In Graham, S. (ed.), Cities, War, and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics. Oxford: Blackwell, pp.31-53.

Graham, S. (2016). Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers. London & New York: Verso.

The Guardian (2016). ‘The transformation of Tel Aviv: how cycling got cool in Israel’s hippest city’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jan/27/cycling-tel-aviv-israel

Hippler, T. (2017). Governing from the Skies: A Global History of Aerial Bombing. London & New York: Verso.

Lowe, F. (2016). ‘Stars of Stage and Screen: Broadcasting the Tour de France’. Available at: http://www.cyclist.co.uk/in-depth/1401/stars-of-stage-and-screen-broadcasting-the-tour-de-france

Telegraph (2017). ‘Giro d’Italia organisers caught in political storm over ‘West Jerusalem’ reference’. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/cycling/2017/11/30/giro-ditalia-organisers-caught-political-storm-west-jerusalem/

Times of Israel (2018). ‘Jerusalem traffic circle to be named for US and Trump’. Available at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/jerusalem-traffic-circle-to-be-named-for-us-and-trump/

Virilio, P. (1989). War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London & New York: Verso.

Weizman, E. (2007). Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London & New York: Verso.

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