When sport and politics clash: we talk to Eritrea’s top talents denied a chance of racing in Europe by bureaucratic red tape
By Andy McGrath,
THE brightest cycling talents from one of Africa’s strongest nations are being handicapped by visa problems that prevent them from racing in Europe.
Top under-23 Eritrean riders Tesfom Okubamariam, Metkel Eyob and Meron Teshome were invited to the World Cycling Centre at the UCI, in Switzerland to train for two months last summer. It would have been a key stage in their development.
“It means better races, a better quality of cycling. That’s why we want to go to Europe,” Teshome, a former Eritrean national champion, told me at last month’s Tropicale Amissa Bongo.
The trio went to the Swiss Embassy in Khartoum in July 2014 to discuss the matter. Since June 2013, Eritrean residents requiring visas have had to go to the Sudanese capital, 1,000 kilometres away, to give fingerprints and biometric data as part of the process. Their visa requests were denied.
“We stayed in Khartoum for almost two weeks without training. We paid our own hotels, everything. We talked with the Swiss embassy, but they said no. I don’t know why,” Teshome said.
When Sport and Politics Clash
The likely reason for denying visas is a fear of absconding: the rate is high from the repressed African state. The UNHCR estimates that 4,000 Eritreans flee every month, many seeking to avoid the compulsory military service and human rights abuses.
There are sporting precedents too. Most notoriously, an entire Eritrean football team and its doctor vanished and sought asylum in Uganda after a 2008 tournament. However, these cyclists are surely at a comparatively low risk, given how integral European racing and an invitation to the WCC is it to their improvement.
It is an ongoing problem. “We’ve had visa problems for three or four years,” Okubamariam says. His compatriot Meron Teshome was unable to travel to the World Championships in Ponferrada last year, his last as an U23 rider.
This is a case of when sport and politics clash. But why allow past Eritrean talents Swiss visas, so that they can train at the UCI, and reject the request of this talented trio?
Africa’s Cycling Powerhouse
There is a huge passion for road cycling in the country, left over from its Italian colonisation. The capital Asmara, perched in the highlands at 2,325 metres, is the locus of the fever, with a bustling race scene and recreational cyclists everywhere.
Eritrea is one of the strongest countries in African cycling, winning the African championship team time trial for the last five years. In MTN-Qhubeka riders Daniel Teklehaimanot, Merhawi Kudus and Natnael Berhane, the nation has started to produce professional riders.
Even for these more established compatriots, there are visa problems. At the 2014 Tour of Langkawi, Berhane was forced to stay in airport immigration for 24 hours and instructed to go to Singapore before the race organiser came to his rescue.
Meanwhile, while racing for Australian team Orica-GreenEdge in 2013, Teklehaimanot spent the first four months of the season in limbo at home, denied a visa for Europe. The previous year, the Asmara native became the first Eritrean to finish a Grand Tour when he completed the Vuelta a España.
Eritrea’s Rich Cycling Talent
Michel Thèze, former head coach at the UCI World Cycling Centre, which helps to develop riders from less-advantaged cycling nations, discovered Teklehaimanot at the African championships in 2008 and invited him to train at the UCI. “Before that, people didn’t know Eritrea,” Thèze says. “We benefited for several years with Berhane too, [Merhawi] Kudus and the others who arrived. We know there’s a certain richness there in Eritrea.”
Thèze added: “[The visa issues] are a brake for the younger riders. It means they’ve got to find other possibilities. It’s more complicated.”
Okubamariam, Eyob and Teshome currently race for the MTN-Qhubeka feeder team, based in Potchefstroom in South Africa, as part of the World Cycling Centre Africa. One of its aims is to develop talents for the Professional Continental squad, which has received an invite to the 2015 Tour de France. “Next year, I hope to turn pro with them,” Okubamariam says.
Yet, as he and more Eritrean talents emerge through their competitive domestic scene and the African calendar, red tape threatens to block the path to achieving their dreams.
Teshome added: “There’s so many spectators [in Eritrea] and so many talented young riders. It’s the future for cycling. To be honest, if we don’t get visas for Europe, it will be difficult.”
The Swiss Embassy in Khartoum said that they do not comment on individual visa cases.