By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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Another oil-rich country suffering under despotic rule is primed for regime change as early as next month. I happened to meet the would-be king of Equatorial Guinea at Bob’s Big Boy for coffee. I had initially thought him just another deluded soul with some half-baked plan, not at all uncommon in this town. Word of the man and his dream came from my sister-in-law. She‘s an actor and was working a phone-sales job last year when she met Gus. He was smart and charming and a hard worker, and they became friends. Both have moved on from the job, but they recently met for coffee to catch up.
Sitting at a Starbucks, he revealed to her that he was actually from Africa and had appeared in the Olympics four times as a sprinter. He also said he was living in exile and now wanted to return to his small, oil-rich country and assume power. She was concerned about her friend, saying he looked tired and had mumbled something about the CIA and James Carville. It was after this meeting that my sister-in-law called to tell me about him.
The country he mentioned, Equatorial Guinea, turned out, in fact, to be real. I was also surprised to find that an athlete named Gustavo (Gus) Envela had indeed represented it at four separate Olympics. When my sister-in-law identified Envela from a photo as her friend, I called and asked if we could meet. He suggested Bob’s Big Boy.
A quick tour of the State Department‘s Web site revealed Equatorial Guinea to be a country of about the same size and population as Maryland, on the west coast of Africa. As a Spanish colony, the country had one of the highest per capita incomes and literacy rates in Africa. Ceding to mounting pressure from nationalists and the United Nations, Spain granted the country independence in 1968. After a short-lived honeymoon, Equatorial Guinea descended into a mire of violence and poverty under “President for Life” Francisco Macias Nguema. For such a small place, the country now takes up considerable real estate on various human rights Web sites. To make things interesting, a large amount of oil has recently been discovered there.
The 34-year-old Envela strolls purposefully into the Big Boy, movie-star handsome and flashing a warm, engaging smile. Before we can slide into the booth, he is already talking with the excited, slightly conspiratorial tone of a friend with some juicy gossip. Far from the deluded nutter I first imagined, Envela seems smart, highly educated and incredibly likable. Under his arm he is carrying a large manila envelope overflowing with paperwork, from which he periodically produces a document or picture to bolster a point. Eventually he just slides the envelope, containing everything from copies of faxes Envela sent the White House to pictures of him posing with James Carville and superstar runner Carl Lewis, over to me. He tells me to take it home for a few days.
Envela explains that he comes from a prominent family back in Equatorial Guinea. “Between being descendants of King Uganda, having a rich history within the Presbyterian Church, and my dad being sort of a George Washington of diplomacy, our family was referred to as kind of a Kennedy type of family,” he says. Back in 1970 his father had been the country’s second ambassador to the United States. The first had been executed after only a month on the job. When his outspoken father was called to return home, he understandably chose to move his family to America, where they settled in Salem, Oregon.
“You can imagine what it was like to be an African family in Oregon back in the early ‘70s,” Envela says. “But it was either that or Montana.” Envela actually has fond memories of his surrogate hometown, telling how, when he emerged as a promising track star, the community rallied in support of him. “I’ll never forget my second-grade teacher, who used to hold coffee klatches in her home to raise money to get me to the national meets.”
Envela‘s four Olympic appearances seem more a testament to his ambition than to his actual athletic ability. Reading Sports Illustrated as a teen, he noticed a rule that every country, no matter how small, could send at least one athlete to the games.
In a 1979 coup d’etat in Equatorial Guinea, the original murderous president for life had been arrested and executed by his incrementally less-murderous nephew, Obiang. Envela and his father began a letter-writing campaign to both the International Olympic Committee and the new president, Obiang, who, appearing to recognize a much-needed opportunity for some good press, agreed to let the 16-year-old political refugee appear as the country‘s first-ever Olympic athlete. Though he never made it past the initial qualifying heats, Envela’s appearance caused enough of a sensation to warrant a nervous and inspiring trip back to Equatorial Guinea, where he and his father met with Obiang at his palace.
Envela then attended Stanford University on a full scholarship, graduating with a bachelor‘s degree in political science and African-American studies. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1990, and worked various jobs before competing in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He then began working as a law clerk for the District Attorney’s Office and eventually attended Southwestern law school for a year, leaving when his first daughter was born. Working less-than-glorious jobs, Envela increasingly focused on returning to his homeland in some capacity. “I always had this calling of wanting to go back,” he says, “and I‘m dreaming that all these jobs are preparing me for something bigger.”