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Writer Jesse Washington & Olympian Anthony Ervin on Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali & Race at Olympics

StoryAugust 16, 2016
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As the Olympics continue in Rio de Janeiro, we return to our conversation with sportswriter Jesse Washington of the site The Undefeated and Anthony Ervin, who just became the oldest-ever individual Olympic swimming gold medalist. Ervin is also the author of the new book, “Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we go to Rio, the site of the Summer Olympic Games, for Part 2 of our conversation with sportswriter Jesse Washington of the site The Undefeated and Anthony Ervin, who just became the oldest-ever individual Olympic swimming gold medalist. I began by asking Jesse Washington about Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who made history by becoming the first Olympian to win the 100-meter gold medal three times in a row.

JESSE WASHINGTON: It’s obvious that Usain Bolt is incredible and that nobody can stay in front of this guy. And his story, in and of itself, is well documented, his greatness. Someone asked him, “You’re already a legend. What comes after legend?” And he said, “I like the sound of the word 'immortal.'” And what he’s done is pretty crazy.

But I’m really intrigued by Justin Gatlin. So, doping has been a big issue here at these Games, due to a lot of factors.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain—

JESSE WASHINGTON: The IOC’s inconsistent and quasi—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Justin Gatlin is, who came in second to Usain Bolt.

JESSE WASHINGTON: Ah, yes. Justin Gatlin is the second fastest man on the planet. And you would think that people would be interested in seeing him run; however, when he entered the stadium and his name was announced, a cascade of boos rained down on him in Olympic Stadium. And I’m not sure where that goes with the Olympic ideal and the Olympic Charter, but it was an extraordinary moment. Nobody could remember such an accomplished athlete getting booed at the beginning of a gold medal sprint. So, it must have been unbelievably hard for Justin Gatlin, who already had a—only a tiny, tiny chance to beat Usain Bolt, to run with that type of feeling. I can’t imagine how that would be. Tony, as a competitor, if you got booed before a race, would it make it harder for you to win?

ANTHONY ERVIN: I think it would be impossible to do well at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Really? It really affects you that much?

ANTHONY ERVIN: I mean, I don’t have the strength to take that on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jesse Washington, explain why this sprinter, Justin Gatlin, was booed on Sunday night.

JESSE WASHINGTON: Justin Gatlin, 10 years ago, tested positive for testosterone, and he was banned from the sport for four years. So, apparently, on the one hand, yes, he was guilty. On the second hand, should he be castigated for life? Should he wear a scarlet D on his forehead for the rest of his career? These are questions that we have to wrestle with as sports fans, as human beings. I find the whole case similar to the way in the United States, if you are convicted of a felony, in some places, you cannot vote for the rest of your life. I, myself, as somebody who has stumbled and fallen in my career and my life, who’s made mistakes, if I’m constantly kept from overcoming those, what kind of people are we? Do we offer a chance for redemption for anybody? Or as an athlete, if you cheat, if you make a mistake and do what the vast majority of your sport is doing, are we going to kick you to the curb for life? These are some of the things that I saw going on. I think the moment overwhelmed Justin Gatlin. He ran slower in this Olympic final than he ran six weeks ago at the Olympic trials. He had a small chance to beat Bolt, but I think when those boos came down on him, that just ended any chance of a miracle finish. It was really remarkable to see.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Ervin, Jesse just asked you how the crowd affects you, and if you can even hear them in the midst of all of this, and I’m wondering about that, the community around when you are doing your race, but also Usain Bolt saying—you know, thinking of the word “immortal.” You take a very different approach.

ANTHONY ERVIN: Well, to talk first about the audience, I mean, I know who my people were out there, who they were out there in the crowd. I didn’t need to specifically hear them to know they were there and cheering. But, you know, I had a Brazilian in my heat, and—you know, Bruno, Bruno Fratus—and, you know, he was ranked number one in the world like all year. And they were going for him. And I was feeling that energy, because it’s positive energy, no matter what. You know, the audience, they want to see a great race. So, that certainly motivates you, whether it’s coming for you or necessarily for someone that you’re with. But if you’re with them in that field, then that’s for you, too.

You know, on the flip side, whenever a Russian came out to compete, they got booed. And, you know, I felt for them, because I know a few Russians. I’ve trained with them. And they’re good people. Like I don’t know—I want to give them the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t—that they weren’t consciously doping, that if their sport governing body was doing something, it was behind their knowledge. And, you know, to have them—you know, they struggled to even get to the Olympics, to get the approval to race. And then to have to walk out and get booed, that’s hard. You know, I definitely had compassion for them in that. And, you know, I haven’t even had the opportunity to talk to them yet on how they felt about it.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Jesse Washington, that issue of, what, a third of the Russian team that came to Rio was disqualified, that—and they learned it while they were in Rio, right?

JESSE WASHINGTON: I’m having a hard time even keeping track of the Russians that are in, the Russians that are out. There was a woman who was cleared to compete, I think in the long jump, from Russia. And the track competition had already started. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an athlete and show up, travel across the world to a race you—or an event you might not even get to be in. So, seems like this should have been settled a long time ago. I’m not all up on the ins and outs of doping and the legalities and the arguments and things like that. I think that this is a world where people deserve second chances, whether that comes in this Olympics or the next one. I don’t believe in banning an athlete for life, forever, for a mistake that they or their coach or their government may have made. So, it’s sort of a mess here in Rio around all this doping stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Olympic gold medalist for judo, Rafaela Silva.

RAFAELA SILVA: [translated] I want to show those who criticized me in London, who said I was an embarrassment to my family, that a monkey belongs in a cage and not in the Olympics, that now the monkey who was supposed to be in a cage in London is out of the cage and is an Olympic champion.

AMY GOODMAN: Jesse, can you talk about the significance of Rafaela Silva’s win?

JESSE WASHINGTON: Yes. Race in Brazil is very interesting, and it’s not the same dynamic that we have in the States. Earlier, Tony mentioned the one-drop rule. If anywhere in your ancestry, going back to West Africa, there is a black person, then, in the United States, you’re black. Here in Brazil, it’s much different. Brazil has a very complicated situation that is more based on class than race. Couple of pieces of context. Brazil was the last place in this hemisphere to outlaw slavery. And once they did outlaw slavery, half of the population was black, so they said, “We need to bring in a lot of Europeans right now to literally lighten up the country.” So, fast-forward to today. Brazil likes to say race doesn’t matter, we’re all Brazilians. They never had Jim Crow. They never had segregation. They never had places where you could not go because you’re black. However, of the poor people here, if you live in a poor area called a favela, there’s white people there, there’s black people, there’s brown people in the middle. All of them are basically the N-words of Brazil because they are poor. So that’s the basic dynamic.

One more thing to layer on top of that, which gets to our judo champion here. There is a privilege associated in Brazil with lighter skin. People want to marry people who are lighter than them, so their children will have more opportunities. If there is a toilet to be cleaned or a floor to be scrubbed, it is more likely that a darker-skin person is doing it here in Brazil. There are very few dark-skin people at the upper echelons of business and government. So, all of these dynamics came out with this tremendous athlete, and she’s being targeted just for the color of her skin, even in a country like Brazil which supposedly has no race. So, to me, that ultimately says you can try to deny it, you can try to say we’re all color blind, let’s not look at that, which is something that is—some people say in the United States, as well, but at the end of the day, let’s really reckon with the privilege that goes along with having white skin. And once we can talk about it, then maybe we can eliminate it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to Rafaela Silva, again, the Olympic gold medalist, the judoka.

RAFAELA SILVA: [translated] Since the first time I stepped out onto the tatami, I was used to jumping into other people’s houses to get my kite, the ball. People taking my flip-flops was a reason to get into a fight. So I think my trainer wanted to channel all this aggression I had into some kind of sport. And in judo, we need this type of will. Growing up in the community, in the favela, we have to have that determination. We have to win everything by merit. We don’t get anything for free.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that’s Olympic gold medalist for judo, Rafaela Silva. Jesse, if you could talk about going into the favelas yourself? I mean, you’re not—you and Tony Ervin are not just anywhere in the world, and it’s just the Olympics. You are in a place, you are in Brazil, and there have been mass protests against the Olympics. Of course, the president, Dilma Rousseff, was thrown out of office, and now she’s going to go through an impeachment process. Many are calling it a coup. Why did you decide to go into the favelas, and what did people say there?

JESSE WASHINGTON: I thought it was important to get out of the Olympic bubble. And it’s easy to just look around at these multimillion-dollar venues and these nice air-conditioned buses that they have for us to ride around in, and forget about the rest of the country. And so, I was fortunate enough to have some folks who knew some folks in the largest favela in Brazil, the favela of Rocinha. And the people that I met there had a pride and a sense of community and really a love for their favela, that’s similar to what you see in the United States in poor communities: “Hey, we may be poor here, but we’re making a good life for ourselves. We love each other. We take care of each other. And we are going to survive. No matter what happens, we’re here, and we’re going to make it.” A lot of the people there said, well, violence with the drug dealers makes it tough. And there’s a lot of gun shootouts and raids with the police and the drug dealers, and that causes a lot of violence and a lot of deaths. There was a security officer who made a wrong turn into a favela during the Olympics and was killed.

But at the same time, they do say that there is a stereotype about favelas. And when I was there, there’s all these warnings: “Oh, you don’t want to walk in there. You won’t come out with, you know, your wallet or your phone.” But it was a normal community full of normal people doing normal things. They have stores. They shop. And another interesting thing that they did was they bodyboard. And I was able to meet a whole school of young people that is taught how to do this sport, which is a pro sport. And they have a beautiful beach at the bottom of the largest favela in Brazil. So, this juxtaposition of the perception and the reality, it’s something that I keep coming back to in our discussions today. A lot of times the media likes to create a narrative without really probing beneath the surface. I think it’s important to probe beneath the surface everywhere, including the favelas of Brazil.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to the firsts. Jesse Washington, what do you know about the refugee team?

JESSE WASHINGTON: Great story of people from war-torn nations who would never have made it to the Olympics but for the IOC doing something right for a change and allowing them to compete under a unified banner. I had a chance to talk briefly with one or two of them. And they are not competitive in their events, but that’s not the point. So, it’s a victory for them even to compete. I was moved just by their perseverance and their determination to get here. There’s millions of refugees all over the world. I hope we can give some of the attention and the light to those who are not athletes, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to explain what it is, what the IOC had to do with this, the International Olympic Committee?

JESSE WASHINGTON: They did march in the opening ceremonies together as a team from different nations under the banner of refugees. And I kind of like it because it flips what is a pejorative and—in the United States, which is saying that we should keep refugees out from places where a bomb could hit your house in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping and your children are sleeping, but we’re not going to allow them into the United States. The IOC is allowing them to the Olympics, so let’s pay some attention to that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tony Ervin, you are not afraid to speak out politically or in any way. Maybe it’s the wisdom of your years.

ANTHONY ERVIN: Well, I’m definitely afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: But not a lot of Olympians feel the same way. Can you talk about this, and also your reverence for, or the fact that you studied Muhammad Ali?

ANTHONY ERVIN: Oh, I’m definitely afraid to speak out. Like I do so fearfully of the repercussion that comes at me because of it. So, yeah, don’t think that I’m not afraid when I do it.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the repercussions?

ANTHONY ERVIN: And yeah—well, just a mob comes at you, of people you don’t even know. Like, that’s the fear, that people come for you for something they don’t understand. Not as you do, at least. But yeah, you know, I think Muhammad Ali is—you know, he’s the patron saint of the Olympics, you know? So, I was—and I was reading—I was reading about him in the civil rights era the day of my race. I was trying to like keep calm and find some peace, and I was in there reading about it. And, you know, it’s like—you know, like I don’t want to get too much into it, because his struggles are well documented and his life is well documented, and anybody can go and read it. But that image of him in Atlanta in ’96 with the Olympic torch and lighting that flame, you know, like, may that flame never go out.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tony, is Tokyo next for you, the next Olympics?

ANTHONY ERVIN: Yeah, I definitely want to be there. Tokyo is one of my favorite cities in the world. You know, whether I’m competing there in a suit, cap and goggles, or wearing a suit and tie in some other role, I mean, I definitely want to be there.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to you to be the oldest gold medalist in swimming?

ANTHONY ERVIN: It means that swimmers generally like give up the sport and retire kind of early, for a variety of reasons. Probably financial. You know, the pay isn’t that lucrative unless you’re a, you know, Michael Phelps. But, you know, pro athletes keep going into their thirties in all sports. You see it in all the American sports—baseball, basketball, football. They can keep going. And, you know, I’m a—while the body may resist at times, and recovery is a little bit harder, I’m so much wiser with my choices, so the preservation of what I do becomes easier to handle. So, you know, the cliché of the age is just a number, you know, it’s the desire to do it or not. You know, I’m still relevant as a competitor for now, but swimming is one of those things that, once you do it, you can keep doing it forever. So, even if I’m not relevant in a competitive sense, I’m still going to be swimming.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Jesse, The Undefeated ran a column by Michael Jordan, who spoke out for the first time publicly about being a black man, in response to the issue of police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Can you talk about the significance of this?

JESSE WASHINGTON: It was a pretty deep significance, because Jordan is probably the most famous athlete on the planet, and he had always shied away from speaking out in favor of black issues, black problems. There is a quote that is attributed to him, probably incorrectly, that says, when he was asked to support a black Senate candidate who was running against a rather borderline racist white guy in North Carolina who shall remain unnamed—Jesse Helms—and Jordan is alleged to have said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” And this quote has followed him throughout his career. So, while we admire Michael for his athletic accomplishments, and he’s the GOAT, the greatest of all time, when it comes to basketball, he was not the blackest of all time when it came to social issues.

So, fast-forward to 2016, The Undefeated is a website about race and sports and the juxtapositions and intersections of those issues. And our editor-in-chief, Kevin Merida, happened to be in a conversation with Jordan’s—one of Jordan’s representatives, and he said, “How’s Michael feeling about all this stuff that’s going on in the news?” And this was right after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling had been killed, and it was after the police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge had been killed, and our nation was really convulsed in this moment. And Jordan felt that it was time to say something. And our editor-in-chief, Kevin, being the newsman that he is, made that happen and was able to work with Jordan to bring his statement to the world, which I thought was pretty positive, because it acknowledged the need for understanding on both sides. And Jordan decided to donate a million dollars to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and to an organization for police officers to increase ties with the community.

So it was a major moment in athletes and social activism. This younger generation of athletes—LeBron, Kobe, Kyrie—they’re more comfortable with the activism. They have more of a voice. Their brands are more powerful. They sell sneakers regardless. Jordan, in a sense, had to catch up with them. They may need to catch up with his basketball legacy, but with that one statement on The Undefeated, Jordan made up some of the ground in the social legacy that these young ballers have established.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tony Ervin, what this meant for you as an African-American athlete, Michael Jordan saying, “As a proud American … and a black man, I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting [and] killing of police officers”?

ANTHONY ERVIN: I mean, well, he’s right, for one. It’s horrible. The plight of being—I mean, just the morale of being black in America has got to be—it’s got to be terrifying if you see those lights coming at you, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You really—you want someone who’s just trying to do their job and is a good person, but what they don’t want is just someone who’s going to come take your life. It’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever experienced anything—

ANTHONY ERVIN: Like I don’t—I don’t even know how we can move past it.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever experienced anything like that?

ANTHONY ERVIN: No. No, I haven’t. I’ve passed out of being able to have to deal with that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jesse, you?

JESSE WASHINGTON: I’ve been stopped by the police a few times, in areas grey and not so grey. I’m no—I was no saint when I was a young man. And I’ve had to deal with it a little bit. The interesting thing is that both Tony and myself both have moms who are white Jewish women from New York City. But just by the genetic dice roll of the universe, I look like I do, and Tony looks like he does. And you can have different experiences, different expectations, different burdens placed upon you or removed from you. So, it’s a very interesting dynamic that—it’s still a big deal.

You know, I tweeted this week that I was the only black journalist in the press conference for the only black woman to win a individual gold medal in swimming at the Olympics. And the response to that was overwhelming. And many, many people said, “What are you talking about? Why are you pointing this out? What does this mean? What does this matter?” So there’s still a deep resistance to dealing with the kind of issues that Tony has had to face since he got in the pool and won medals in 2000, and that we cover at The Undefeated, and that I dealt with as a young man. So, hopefully, we can start to wrestle with some of these things, even when the president of the United States is not a black man.

If I could say real quick about Obama—a lot of people don’t even want to say that he’s the first black president. “Oh, he’s the first biracial president.” You know, Obama and myself both have white moms. What people fail to understand is that you don’t get to decide if you’re black or not. Society looks at you and decides if you’re black. And so, Obama gonna stay black, you know, until the end. So, if you want to take that away from him, that’s—think about what you’re trying to do to rob somebody of the identity that not only have they chosen for themself, but that America put on them. So, we got a long way to go to wrestle with some of these things, and it’s going to take—it might take three or four more black presidents, a Buddhist and a Muslim president, woman, in a hijab, to solve this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Sportswriter Jesse Washington of The Undefeated and Anthony Ervin, who just became the oldest-ever individual Olympic swimming gold medalist at the age of 35.

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