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Eritrea: Africa’s Cycling Champion

By Simon Woldemichael

Eritrea, a young developing country with great potential in sport, has been making major strides in continental and international cycling competitions. It has so far produced world-class athletes: Daniel Teklehaymanot who wore King of the Mountain jersey in the Tour de France and many others who won African and world championships. Eritrea has become the undisputed African Cycling Champion eight times since 2010. The prowess of the Eritrean national cycling team, which also reflects the national mantra of Eritrea, at continental and international tournaments is being increasingly recognized by the sport community.

The Eritrean national cycling team has won the African Championship tournament for a record eight times. This year, it has garnered 15 medals, including seven gold, six silver and two bronze at the 18th African Cycling Championship held at the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh from 22 to 27 March. Henok Mulubrhan, a 22-year-old professional athlete, clinched the title of African Champion of the year 2022 by edging South African Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg and Algerian Hamza Amari. Henok is the sixth Eritrean athlete to become African Champion. Before him, Daniel Teklehaimanot (2010), Natnaiel Berhane (2011 and 2012), Tesfom Okbamariam (2013 and 2016), Amanuel Gebrezgabhier (2018) and Mekseb Debesay (2019) became champions of the African Continental Cycling Championship. The African Continental Cycling Championship is an annual cycling race being held since 2001.

Back in August 2010, President Issaias Afwerki said that “the Africa task is concluded” at his meeting with Eritrea’s National Team that became the champion of Africa and Tour Rwanda for the year. He nudged the athletes to widen their horizon and compete at international levels and grand world tours. Soon, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus achieved the vision by becoming the first black Africans to compete at Tour de France. Recently, in October 2021, Biniam Ghirmay competed against world athletes in the under-23 men’s road race in Belgium to become the first black African to win a silver medal in the world championship.

While the Eritrean National Team was competing for African championship in Sharm el-Sheikh, the professional Eritrean cyclist Biniam Girmay finished first at the prestigious Gent Wevelgem competition in Belgium. He became the first African cyclist to win in the world’s classic tour in Belgium, Europe. Up on his victory, Biniam said, “It was a big moment for me, for my continent, for Eritrea and especially for black cycling, to show our potential to the world.” Eritrean athletes have experienced many such epic moments in history to become a pride for Eritrea and Africa. Eritrean cyclists are used to standing on every podium of major tournaments. Biniam Girmay will appear on Giro d’Italia in May to, hopefully, write a new chapter of success for himself, Eritrea and Africa.

Sport, in general, and cycling, in particular, have always been part of life in Eritrea. The bicycle is a popular mode of transport and entertainment of the young and adults. Cycling is not only viewed as an athletic activity, it’s rather a tradition. The physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing of Eritreans is closely related with cycling. At the same time, the government’s enormous attention plays a critical role for its development. The many Eritrean cyclists who excelled in major international competitions provide additional impetus to the young for increased interest in sports. The pioneering heroes became role models for many young Eritreans to be into cycling intensely.

At the country level, the organization of sport in Eritrea stretches from grassroots (schools, local administrations, army units) to the national level. The National Commission of Culture and Sport is the umbrella for all the sports federations and plays a major role in formulating and implementing the national policy on Sports. Various sport clubs are operating in Eritrea’s six administrative regions.

Sport, especially big events such as the Olympics and continental and international championships, plays a vital role in nation building by inspiring national pride. The sporting victory Eritrea has gained through cycling is a symbolic expression of the general condition of the country. As sport is entwined with national identity, athletics, in general, and cycling, in particular, can serve as manifestations of the Eritrean national identity. Indeed, it is widely accepted that sports diplomacy is primarily aimed at building peace, friendship, cooperation, and mutual understanding between peoples that Eritrea has fought to achieve.

Eritrea’s success in sport is no accident. The remarkable achievement in cycling is the outcome of both organizational competency of sport administration and indefatigable individual efforts of the athletes. The achievement being scored in sport would help Eritrea to stand out not only in international sports but also in the international system as a whole.

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