Eritrea isn't a big place. The East African country has a population of 6 million or so. Recently it has come under some serious international criticism: A damning report released by the United Nations last month suggested that the country's one-party government might be guilty of crimes against humanity. While the government disputes the findings, the huge numbers of migrants risking their lives to escape the nation contribute to a poor international reputation for life in Eritrea.
This week, however, even Eritreans critical of the government may be feeling a sense of pride in their nation. Eritrean cyclists Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot have made history by becoming the first black Africans to compete in the Tour de France. The Eritrean riders are making their presence felt in the race, with Teklehaimanot winning the coveted King of the Mountains jersey on Thursday.
"This is a day I will never forget," Teklehaimanot said. "It is a big step for African cycling."
In a sport still dominated by white Europeans, the success of two black Africans is a big step. And while Eritrea may be a small nation with a troubled history and serious economic and political problems in the present day, few are surprised that Eritreans are leading the charge. As the Economist has put it, cycling is Eritrea's "unofficial fifth state-sanctioned religion."
Eritrea's cycling culture is intertwined with its colonial history. According to Eritrean academic FikreJesus Amahazion, the first bicycle was introduced to the country by the Italians in 1898, and by the 1930s Eritreans were organizing their own bicycle clubs. Amahazion notes that even under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, the prowess of the Eritrean cyclists was undeniable: Eritrea’s Ghebremariam Ghebru beat a number of Italian cyclists in a special race organized in 1939 by the colonial administrators, in turn shattering "colonial myths about Eritrean inferiority," Amahazion writes.
From 1961 to 1991, Eritreans were locked in a bloody war for independence with Ethiopia. Despite the chaos, cycling remained a part of daily life in Eritrea. Dan Connell, a journalist and expert on Eritrea, says he can recall seeing bicycles in Eritrea regularly when he first traveled there in the mid-1970s. "At that time it was just common to see people riding bikes," Connells said, noting that often he saw "older men riding clunky bikes with no gears on them." Connell says that this was partly as cars were rare during the war for independence: At one point, bicycles themselves were outlawed because Ethiopia suspected they could be used by the independence movement to aid attacks.
Once Eritrea gained independence, the country's cycling culture flourished. Perhaps spurred on by its high-altitude environment (Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, sits 7,628 feet above sea level) and mountainous roads, Eritrean cyclists have established themselves as dominant forces in the competitive African cycling world, repeatedly winning African championships. In the Tour de France, Kudus and Teklehaimanot form part of the MTN-Qhubeka team, a South African-registered team that became the first on the continent to participate in the Tour de France after being chosen as a "wild card" pick. The rest of their team is white, with riders from Belgium, Britain, Norway and the United States taking part.
But Eritrea's problems haven't made things easier for its cyclists. Even before the recent U.N. report, the country had gained a reputation as "Africa's North Korea." While analysts say the "North Korea" tag is an oversimplification, they also argue that Eritrea's police state is genuinely unique among its neighbors. Eritrea's mandatory national service, which the government admits can last a few years but the United Nations says can end up being indefinite, has become a focal point of international criticism. Accusations of torture and extrajudicial killings also have been made by human rights organizations.
Eritrean athletes get support from this state – their sporting performances can count as national service, for example – but Eritrea's troubled reputation complicates matters when they go abroad. Last year, three young Eritrean cyclists were invited to the training center of the International Cycling Union in Switzerland, but their visa applications were rejected by the Swiss government. The decision may have been made because of fears that the athletes would use the trip to Europe as a chance to escape their country permanently. This has happened before: An entire Eritrean soccer team was reported missing during a trip to Kenya in 2009 and later discovered to be seeking asylum.
Georgia Cole, an academic from Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre who has researched Eritrea's cycling culture, adds that Eritrea's national cycling federation helps cyclists out in many ways but at times its 'do it alone' attitude ends up restricting riders: By refusing to align national racing standards to international standards, for example.
The Eritrean government is clearly proud of its cyclists – it was hard to miss the prominent teams of cyclists filmed by the BBC earlier this year when Eritrea granted the news organization rare access. The PR-value of a small, troubled nation producing world-class athletes is immense. The Eritrean government, and many pro-government Eritreans inside the country and in the diaspora, believe that the negative reputation the country has is unfair, that the country's lack of elections and unimplemented constitution is a justifiable result of its fragile security situation and simmering tensions with Ethiopia.
For evidence of what's going right in Eritrea, these voices often point toward the country's living standards, noting particularly that it appears to have been the only one to achieve all of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals related to health. Although some experts don't buy those figures, sporting success is harder to deny. "When it comes to sports, you are gonna see the results," Connell says. "It is what it is."
The success of Eritrean athletes in these conditions may make some uneasy, but Cole says that in general "the success is despite the government rather than because of it." Teklehaimanot and Kudus' achievements at the Tour de France are remarkable and they stand on their own.
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