Less than a year after Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel began to sign up for local cycling competitions, they have already picked up 15 medals and trophies in a variety of categories. Their success is not surprising: Since the days of the country’s occupation by Italy, bicicletta (bicycling) has been the national sport of Eritrea.
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In the past few months, Michael Keflemarim, 34, who had been a regional champion in Eritrea over a period of several years, won three medals in Israel in his age category. In Eritrea he resigned from his job, decided not to marry and focused solely on pursuing the sport – eating the right food and getting the amount of sleep a champion needs. After every gold medal, he says, his fans would shower him with money.
However, the Eritrean dictatorship enlists the country’s men for military service almost for life. Keflemarim managed to desert from the army and escape into Sudan, from where he made his way to Israel in 2010. Until recently, he worked in the meat department of a supermarket chain, but finally couldn’t take the grinding 12-hour days together with professional cycling. He’s now a municipal street-cleaner, living and working legally in Tel Aviv.
“Cleaning is best,” he says with satisfaction. “I told my landlord that I was a champion in Eritrea, and he was pleased. But Israelis don’t really understand what bikes are. In Eritrea, cycling is the most important sport, like basketball and soccer here. When there’s a cycling tournament, the city shuts down and people stand for six hours and watch. That’s what made me train so well.”
In Israel, too, he doesn’t want to marry or have a family, but rather to devote his life to cycling. “I am going with this sport to the end,” he declares.
That end could come very quickly. On July 4, Keflemarim will be jailed in the Holot camp in the Negev. The Israel Prison Service doesn’t allow bicycles in the facility, and there’s no chance of getting the nourishment a champion athlete needs. He is trying to get the detention order rescinded by legal means, but his chances are slim. “I came to the Interior Ministry with the medals, I showed them letters,” he says. “They told me, ‘You are good at sports, but this is the law. It’s not us, it’s the state.’ If they tell me to go to Holot, I will sell the bike and go.”
Also taken to Holot, in October, was the former captain of the local Eritrean cycling team, Filmon Gabargarbas. But he decided that a life without gears was not a life, signed a voluntary deportation order to Rwanda and left. He crossed the border after arriving in Rwanda and was jailed for a while in a moldy prison in Kenya. At present he is competing in Ethiopia. Ten Eritrean cyclists and 10 Israeli cyclists escorted Gabargarbas to Holot, in his honor.
In the café where we’re sitting in the old central bus station in Tel Aviv, people wonder delicately whether Michael too will want to be honored in a similar way when he’s jailed. There’s no need, he says, hesitant and dispirited.
Emanuel Gebremichel, 29, works in a supermarket in Tel Aviv on weekdays. This year he’s won five medals and two trophies. He too is worried about the Holot threat. “I enjoy cycling, but in my mind I am always thinking about Holot,” he admits. “After Michael goes, maybe they will call me.”
I ask him how he managed to raised 10,000 shekels (about $2,500) for a new bike, insurance, repairs and competition fees. “If you love something, it’s not expensive,” he tells me. “We do not look at the money.”
Even when the cyclists win, they don’t make their investment back. In the last tournament Keflemarim took part in, he finished in third place and received as his prize a bag of peaches and a tube of sunscreen. He protested jokingly that, given the color of his skin, he doesn’t need the sunscreen.
At the moment, the Eritrean cyclists are on the Bottecchia Team Israel, but their dream is to establish an Israeli-Eritrean team. It already has the ironic name of White City Rising. “The vision is a half-and-half team,” explains Yoav Weiman, who is helping to put the team together. “Sports is a way to take off the masks, and everyone is pitching in. Friends of mine who are right-wingers are also enthusiastic about the idea.”
Yaron Dor, the CEO of the Israel Cycling Federation, tempers the enthusiasm. “They [the Eritreans] are competing in tough conditions, in terms of equipment and the problems of earning a living and difficulties that are piled onto them,” he notes. “This kind of activity requires continuity. They are very capable, but let’s not delude ourselves – in part because of their age, I don’t see any Olympic hopes here.”
If Dor is wrong and one of the Eritrean cyclists wins an international medal, it will be an Israeli victory, as far as the athletes are concerned. “I am in Israel, so the medal is Israeli,” says Keflemarim. “If Eritrea becomes a democracy, I will return to my country. But the medal is determined according to where I live.”