Invisiblizing and Politicizing Eritrean Cycling and Sports

This past week, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus cemented themselves in history alongside names like Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Steve Mokone, and Arthur Wharton by becoming the first black Africans to compete in a previously all white professional sport–namely, the Tour de France.

Many ululated and were in tears as they saw Daniel peddle down the raceway as the first rider of the entire 198-person race. It seemed that this epic moment in history, a moment of pride for African and Eritrean peoples around the world, would be covered around-the-clock by an international press thirsty for these sort of feel-good stories; that Daniel and Merhawi would become instant households names. Oddly, however, this was not the case.

Instead, we saw a very tired and hostile media downplaying, misrepresenting and denigrating the Eritrean cyclists and their young Red Sea nation.

Virtually no major news outlets—and especially their headlines—pointed out the fact that the riders were native black Africans and not merely the progeny of the remnant colonial aristocracy as was the case with last year’s Tour winner, the Kenyan-born British national Chris Froome.

It is not the intention to be divisive or petty by dwelling on race issues. Surely, race on the African content should be a concept of the past. However, current outstanding racial inequalities stacked against black and colored African peoples and a global caste system buttressing white privilege on African toil necessitates that race be adequately covered until the impending, hypothetical “post-racial” world arrives.

It is for this reason that the feats of Joe Louis, Lamine Guèye, and Mohammad Ali, against all odds, are held in such high regard and why there is so much media coverage of the “No to Racism” campaign in European football.

It is within this context, that the world spectators would reasonably expect the following bold headlines: “Eritreans Become First Black Africans in Tour de France” or “First Black Africans Cyclists in Tour de France”. However, the words “Eritrea” and “Black” never make the headlines.

An article in the UAE newspaper The National comes closest with its headline reading, “Daniel Teklehaimanot becomes first African to compete in Tour de France.” The second paragraph acknowledges that he is “the first black African to ride the Tour de France.”

Major newspapers in Europe and America were shockingly worse.

No mention could be found in the European papers with the exception of a July 4 piece by the Guardian’s Barry Glendenning. Glendenning buries the fact that Daniel is a black African and Eritrean in a blasé side comment in the middle of the sixth paragraph: “Its multiple bends were sweeping rather than sharp and in the course of becoming the first black African rider to participate in the Tour de France, the Eritrean will need to make fuller use of his brakes, gears and bike handling skills in the days and weeks ahead.” Acknowledging Daniel’s accomplishment while criticizing his cycling skills in the same sentence trivializes his accomplishment.

Some articles were overtly racist. According to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, “Daniel Teklehaimanot, one of two Eritreans on the Tour team – Eritrea being one African country where there is a culture of cycling thanks to their former colonial masters Italy.”

One can only imagine the reaction of the British if Britainia, the Ancient Roman-era precursor island to modern Britain, which was devoid of a script prior to Roman conquest, was said to attribute its entire writing culture, which produced Shakespeare, Chaucer and the Telegraph, to their Roman “masters.”

Though it true that the Italians brought with them a culture of cycling to Eritrea in the late 1880s, the reality is that native Eritreans were barred from participating in local races until 1939, during the twilight years of Italian colonial rule, when Ghebremariam Ghebru won the first integrated race.

Worse yet is the politicization of cycling and sports, historically acknowledged as one of society’s few activities that transcends divisive global politics.

According to a piece by AFP, misleadingly entitled “Eritrea gives green light for Tour de France team,” the article states that “Eritrea’s president has given his backing to the first two cyclists from his country to ride in the Tour de France, despite a spate of defections by sports stars at past international events, state media said Saturday.” In reality, the cited state media made no claims of “backing” or presidential approval, stating only that the president congratulated the cyclists.

The AFP piece goes on mention the recent UN Commission of Inquiry report, human rights, and unsubstantiated migration statistics. What does this have to do with sports, exactly?

In the American press? Total silence. Surprisingly, no mention of the Eritrean cyclists by the New York Times. If one Googles “new york times daniel teklehaimanot”, the first NYT article that appears is a highly politicized November 17, 2011 piece by James Montague headlined “Eritrean National Team Heads Home Intact.”

As the headline suggests, Montague expresses surprise that the Eritrean national soccer team returned from Rwanda without defecting, goes on a unwarranted and tangential diatribe on UNHCR and migration and suggests that the Eritrean National Cycling Team, which included Daniel Teklehaimanot, similarly pulled out of the Tour of Rwanda to avoid any potential defections.

Montague ignores the fact that UNHCR gives prima facie status to and takes an exceptional policy position on all Eritrean migrants, making the Eritrean asylum application the easiest and quickest one processed in the world. Despite this reality, amazingly, not one cyclist has yet to defect.

The yellow journalism and highly politicized nature of media coverage vis-à-vis Eritrean sports has effectively served to invisiblize and shame Eritrea in the eyes of the world. Additionally, the near total blackout on this major cycling event and the sort of homogeneity and conformity of reporting throughout the global media makes one wonder if this reporting, or lack thereof, is deliberate and coordinated among media agencies.

Although we already know about the incredible and expansive role of the CIA in the media following Carl Bernstein’s groundbreaking 1977 publication on the topic, we’re not going to pull the CIA card. That would be too easy.

Prepackaged and coordinated politicized coverage of something as seemingly apolitical and innocuous as Eritrean cycling may seem farfetched but some evidence suggests that this may be the case.

Radio journalists for BBC Africa, who often report on African cycling but fail to mention 5-time African cycling champ Eritrea, have been repeatedly engaged on Twitter by multiple Eritreans, seeking more coverage, to no avail. Only excuses are given.

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In a May 2014 American University publication by Audrey Vorhees entitled What Would a Nonviolent Resistance Movement Look Like in Eritrea, Vorhees strategizes a nonviolent resistance movement for regime-change in Eritrea and suggests that diaspora Eritreans recruit Eritrean-American Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi to be the “face of this movement to the international community” due to the fact that he “has been in the news several times.” Gene Sharp, the godfather of colored revolutions closely linked to the US State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency, explicitly named Eritrea as a target of these “nonviolent action” tactics.

Rather than taking part in such actions, Meb, who ran himself into Eritrean history in heroic fashion, chose instead to visit the Eritrean delegation to the UN in New York, driving a cold stake into the heart of Vorhees’ strategy.

meb 1

Let us not also forget the 2013 Twitter account hoax, in which a Bloomberg journalist created a fake account in the name of Eritrean Olympic runner Zersenay Tadesse and claimed that one of his family members had been taken hostage in the Sinai by human traffickers. Reuters picked up the story without verifying the account, promoting the false image of an Eritrea overrun by state-sanctioned trafficking and hopelessly crippled by repression-driven migration. Interestingly, the story was tagged as “Arab Spring” by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, suggesting that it played into the broader nonviolent action strategy for regime change.

Instigating the defection of popular sports figures also seems to be part of this strategy. Former U.S. Ambassador Ronald K. McMullen acknowledged in a 2010 diplomatic cable under the derisive subheading “SOCCER TEAM 1 – REGIME 0,” that “Eritreans are mad about soccer” and that the defection of four Eritrean football players in Kenya “will be stunning news for the Eritrean population.”

It’s perhaps little surprise that many of the defecting Eritrean football players go straight to the local US Embassy, receive expedited asylum and resettle almost immediately to the US, as was highlighted in painstaking detail by Susan Carrol in a May 23, 2012 article in the Houston Chronicle. Many of these football players, unable to make it big in the pros, are now working as gas station attendants, janitors, and other remedial laborers. Instead of speaking out against the Eritrean government, a number of the these young players actually attend nationalist youth conferences and events with government officials present.

In light of the evidence, it comes as little surprise that Eritrean sports are subject to invisiblization and politicization. It has long been recognized that Eritrea is entrenched in a protracted, asymmetrical war with the world’s sole super power, America, and is facing a hostile 15-year-long isolation strategy.

According to a leaked US embassy cable in Addis Ababa sent by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston on November 1, 2005, the strategy of the US-backed Ethiopian proxy was to “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” Additionally a November 5, 2009 cable by CDA Roger Meece states that the “USG [US government] has worked to undercut support for Eritrea.”

If there is an isolation strategy in place, then it must be recognized that any effective isolation strategy dictates that all forms of international power and influence of the targeted state in question must be contained. This includes international cycling, falling in the realm of “soft power,” which serves to change and influence social and public opinions of Eritrea.

One can only imagine the difficulty the US State Department would face in forwarding the standard, doom-and-gloom narrative on Eritrea, marked by state repression-driven poverty, hunger, despair and migration, when malaria-free Eritrean cyclists with healthy bone structure smile for the French cameras as they board the plane headed back to Eritrea. One can only imagine the image that would send to the world. UN sanctions and Commission reports alleging “crimes against humanity” wouldn’t make much sense. Soft power would flex its muscles.

It is for this reason that even the slightest victory for the Eritrean people, the slightest bit of hope that a brighter tomorrow is on the horizon or that personal success is, in fact, possible in Eritrea must be mercilessly extinguished and asphyxiated in the cradle by any means necessary. It is for this reason that even something as simple as an Eritrean cycling or running success must go unacknowledged, downplayed, politicized or wildly misrepresented.

There can be no wins for the Eritrean people so long as the current government is in place. Montague of the aforementioned NYT article highlights how Eritrea must fail in every way and in every possible metric imaginable.

In his book “Thirty-One Nil” he explains that “Eritrea is one of the worst countries in the world by almost any metric. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, torture, poverty and, of course, football.” Painting a dystopian, hell-on-Earth image of Eritrea, he conflates failure in sports with political failures.

Despite this hostile campaign against Eritrea, which Chatham House expected to collapse in 2008, the underpaid runners and cyclists continue to run and peddle—not for themselves—but for their nation and people, effectively un-invisibilizing Eritrea and depoliticizing portrayals of the nation. This desire runs deep in many politically-conscious Eritreans and their cyclists who feel their nation has not been properly made known to the world, rightfully exposed to the global public, and accurately portrayed. The feeling is that the nation’s very sovereignty is being challenged.

This is perhaps the reason why large throngs of crazed Eritrean citizens travel long distances to support their cyclists on short notice in the same way 8,000 citizens demonstrated the Commission of Inquiry report in Geneva on only five days’ notice.

This is perhaps the reason that, following a question by Jenny Vaughn of AFP to Eritrean cyclist Meron Russom about why he cycles, he responded, “when I race in Europe, the aim is to introduce our country to the world.”

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Viva Eritrea! Viva Africa!

ADDENDUM: On Thursday, July 9th, Daniel Teklehaimanot was crowned King Of the Mountains and became the first African to win a jersey, the polka dot jersey. Although CNN picked up the story–reluctantly and begrudgingly–indicating that Daniel “became the first African to don the polka-dot jersey”, the article was buried in other news on Le Tour that took priority over this epic achievement (stage wins, Tony Martin dropping out, etc.). While the masses in the Twitter-verse gave credit, the mainstream media spoke with pursed lips.
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The New York Times, among the worst, did not even acknowledge the event and the gravity of Daniel’s epic performance: “…a French rider who was joined by Daniel Teklehaimanot, an Eritrean, and Kenneth Vanbilsen of Belgium. While the sixth stage was more hilly than mountainous, Teklehaimanot, riding in the Tour for the first time, gathered enough points to wear the polka-dot jersey of the best climber by the end of the day.” That was all they said. No mention of the historical precedent set by the young African hero. Instead, his performance was trivialized, downplaying the grueling “mountainous” terrain as just “hilly” and robbing him of due credit. Why can’t Eritreans and Africans simply receive the respect they deserve? Is the media not aware of the obstacles they face to reach the podium?

Africans face unspeakable odds. This fact becomes all the more clear in light of recent news that fellow Eritrean rider Natneal Berhane, competing in the Tour of Austria on the same day as Daniel, was called an “effing nigger” by CCC rider Branislau Samoilau. These and many other social, political, and economic obstacles cannot be downplayed. The intention is not to perpetuate the “us” versus “them” mindset but, instead, to merely highlight the cold, hard fact that Eritrean and African people are battling unspeakable odds and not given due credit by a complacent media for reasons that range from racist to geopolitical. It’s time the world recognize this reality and move forward.
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3 thoughts on “Invisiblizing and Politicizing Eritrean Cycling and Sports

  1. Yes we are all very proud.

    TODAY (bc I am in an unusual good mood) I’d like to start off with an apology as I’ve just discovered that you’re writing from Asmera which makes you less of a hypocrite than the rest of us.

    I remember discussing Hatsheput with you once so I’ll conclude with one request: please would u sexist mfz in Asmera recognize Meraf Bahta’s achievements within sports? And if u sexist mfs 🙂 in Asmera deem her unworthy of recognition would you sexist mfz 🙂 in Asmera please explain why? Is she for example Agame? AND IF SO how is it that the sexist mf DIA has the right to much idolatry and fame besides tho he too is Agame (as well as a sexist mf 🙂

    Cordially taking my rights
    /RAHWIT TA’ANDE GHEZANNA

  2. SeArri Diarit! SeArri! Kibret DaAro halewwi.
    AJOKHI GUAL Adey ajokhi! (kem Helen Meles keytkehddi…) Seb-awwi mesel halewwi (mess elfi hasawti keytera-aiyi)… SeArri Diarit seArri netselli netselli! N’Aster Fessahatsion ilki netselli b’shim Rahwa netselli! Mess baAl 40% keytera-aiyi mess elfi sheyeTtti hager keyte-Teffi…

    Ayae baAl segen megen teghebrewwo, kulu mulu ra-aiyetto gual daAro…

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