Tour de Timor: A Tour of Peace
September 14, 2011
The Tour de Timor has been billed as the world’s toughest mountain bike race. From September 11-16, over 350 cyclists from around the globe are pitting themselves against each other and against Timor-Leste’s awesome terrain, which promises an even more grueling, difficult track than in the past two years since the race’s inception.
The terrain, which stretches 620 kilometers up 2,500-meter tall mountains and rattlesnake-like switchbacks, through rice paddies and dry scrub plains that descend into the sea, and down paved roads and dirt trails into remote villages and jungle, the six-day race is as aesthetically inspiring as it is physically defiant. However, the Tour de Timor is much more than an opportunity for athletic masochism or the promotion of tourism in a country badly seeking economic development.
After three and a half years living in Timor-Leste, riding in the Tour de Timor for the first time in 2010, and spending a year preparing myself to compete in the 2011 tour with the national team, I have had begun to understand a more profound message hidden behind this annual mega-event.
President José Ramos-Horta has created a platform through which the nation expresses its depthless optimism and unconditional hope for freedom, peace, and a safer place in the world. But is such an idea too good to be true for Asia’s newest state?
Sports schemes litter development projects around the globe. Sports are used as a means to promote reconciliation among former combatants, raise HIV awareness, and build trust between police and at-risk groups. From cricket in Southern Sudan to football in Kashmir, the aim is to break down walls of stigma, grievance, and fear through a shared, positive experience brought out through competition. However, Timor’s Tour has grown to encompass much more, arguably because of where the country has started from.
Timor-Leste suffered 450 years of Portuguese colonial rule followed by a national resistance struggle against the Indonesian military beginning in 1975 and ending in 1999. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR) estimates that at least 102,800 were killed as a result of the Indonesian military occupation. Woven through this narrative are the foreign players, chiefly the United States and Australia who largely turned a blind eye to the Indonesian invasion and gave military hardware to Suharto which he used to subdue the Timorese.
The Tour is about Timor-Leste rising above the ashes. Like Clint Eastwood’s film, “Invictus” telling the story of Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid vision of reconciliation, where blacks and whites united to successfully compete as one team for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the Tour rings of comeback and triumph.
The Tour has produced professional-class Timorese riders like the Da Costa Brothers and Antonio Martins. The 70 Timorese riders participating in the event are by day mechanics, laborers, and students. By the twilight hours of morning and evening, the riders train, many knowing that their families have sacrificed additional income. In a country where an estimated 41 percent live below Timor-Leste’s national poverty line of $0.88 a day, they balance the basics of livelihood against their ambitions to compete.
The colorful images of the national team riders on larger than life posters hang on district centers, and fill websites and national TV. These are the nation’s newest symbols of Timorese pride, not for their role in the national resistance struggle, but because they are felt to embody a piece of every Timorese person within them.
In sporting events we are often drawn to the punctuations – the start, the crash, or the sprint finish. The Tour de Timor-Leste has grown to epitomize the importance of what happens in between. The Tour and the president’s other international initiatives, such as the Dili Marathon, have sparked a culture of fitness among Timorese as well as foreigners in Dili, where joggers and cyclists of all origins can be seen enjoying the capital’s coconut-lined waterfront and newly constructed boardwalk. The Tour is said to draw more than $1 million in sponsorship from multi-national beverage, telecommunication, oil, and airline companies in the region.
No doubt that during the six days of sweat, blood and tears, I like all of the other riders in this year’s Tour de Timor will be showered with greetings from throngs of children, men, and women who will line the roads and tracks. Perhaps Timor-Leste’s spirit is best expressed here, not by the punctuated moments of glory but in the expression of joy that can be seen as we all emerge beyond our barriers of isolation. Invictus! (and wish me luck!)
Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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