A race for the top
- Kerry Eggers
- Portland Tribune - Sports
Former star sprinter plans a run at presidency in Africa
Not long after he arrived at Benson High as a promising freshman runner, Nate Anderson learned of a hallowed name in Oregon high school track and field.
'Everywhere I went, people talked about Gus Envela,' Anderson says. 'People told me they came from miles away to watch him run.'
One day last spring, Benson's coaches told him they had received a phone call.
'It was Gus, and he wanted me to call him,' Anderson recalls. 'He told me he had heard about me and was going to come watch the state meet.'
A pulled left hamstring kept Anderson - who brought down Envela's long-standing state record in the 400 meters last year - from defending his state title at Hayward Field. But Envela came from his home in Los Angeles, anyway, to meet his USC-bound successor.
'He told me if I ever needed any advice, don't hesitate to call,' Anderson says. 'For somebody to go out of his way like that to meet me, to be so sincerely interested … that was wonderful.'
'I told Nate, 'Be true to yourself. Don't let the environment at SC intimidate you. We all go through transitions in life. If there's a way I can soften your landing … I'll keep an eye on you,' ' says Envela, 38, who moved on to Stanford after graduation from Salem's McKay High in 1986. 'Nate's a great talent and seems like a great kid. I'm sure he'll represent his family and the state of Oregon well.'
Envela knows well the challenges Anderson will face as a young track star from Oregon, trying to make his mark collegiately in California. It didn't work out so well for Envela on the track at Stanford - he ran only one season for the Cardinal - and he experienced difficult times as he transitioned from young man to adult. He persevered, earned his Stanford degree, runs a lucrative business in Beverly Hills and thinks big.
How big? He aspires to be president of his native Equatorial Guinea, for whom he competed four times in the Olympic Games. He says he wants to help the oppressed people of the tiny country in West Africa and take down their ruthless dictator. He wants to make a difference.
'After I die, if a history book would write a chapter on me, (an epitaph) would hopefully say, 'Here lies Gus Envela. All … used … up,' ' he says, solemnly.
Father still holds influence
Tuesday was an emotional day for Gustavo Budjedi Envela-Mahua Jr. - the first anniversary of the death of his father, Gus Sr., who brought the family to Salem from Equatorial Guinea to start a new life in 1970.
The elder Envela, his country's first ambassador to the United Nations, is buried in the Twin Oaks Mortuary near Corvallis. Gus Jr., his stepmother and several family members and close friends visited the grave site together.
'We prayed together,' Gus Jr. says. 'The only time I cried was when I hugged my brother, Ted. Dad was to have been given his rightful state-sponsored funeral in Equatorial Guinea but was denied that by the dictator (Teodoro Obiang). His remains are here now, but his final resting place will be in Equatorial Guinea.'
Gus Envela Sr. was not always easy to live with, an alcoholic who was sometimes abusive and controlling with his wives and children. But Gus Jr. respected him greatly, and the love has become greater in the year since his death.
'I know it sounds strange, but I'm closer to him now,' Gus Jr. says. 'Sometimes in death, the bonds become stronger, and the mistakes parents make become more forgivable.'
Envela Sr. fled with his family to Oregon due to escalating violence in his homeland, worked for the state of Oregon for many years and helped raise five boys and a girl.
'It is amazing to think of the legacy my father left behind,' Gus Jr. says. 'He was born literally in a hut in West Africa but was able to emerge from that with his dignity intact. He was about being humble, helping those around him and not looking for accolades. I miss him so much. The baton was passed on to me, his youngest son, and I welcome that responsibility.'
Gus Sr. gave Gus Jr. a start in track, and by 9 years old, he had begun a career that included 13 national age-group sprint titles. At McKay, Envela won the 100, 200 and 400 meters at the state meet as a sophomore, junior and senior from 1984-86, a feat never equaled in Oregon prep history. His state 100 record (10.25 seconds) still stands.
Churchill's Jordan Kent bettered Envela's 200 record in 2002, and Anderson knocked one-hundredth of a second off the 400 mark a year ago.
Envela was a man among boys on the track, a chiseled 5-10, 180-pounder. When the lean, 6-2, 170-pound Anderson met Envela in May, he was stunned by the stocky body type. 'He didn't look the way I envisioned,' Anderson says.
At McKay, Envela blew away the opposition. Every time.
'I never would have thought a kid who began his career in Salem at age 6 running 60 yards in Winnie the Pooh slippers would end up one day setting all those records and competing in four Olympics,' he says.
Envela ran in the 1984, '88, '92 and '96 games, though he never advanced beyond a preliminary heat. He says he was denied a fifth Olympic appearance by an Equatorial Guinea government that, by 2000, had begun to view Envela as an antagonist and opponent of Obiang.
But Envela's sprint career spiraled downward at Stanford and, for a time, his life with it.
College proves none too easy
Envela chose Stanford from among what he says were 200 college scholarship offers - 'the hardest decision of my life,' he says. 'But I knew I had to sever my cradled environment. I had to get out of that portion of my life and go through difficulties and growing pains and separation.'
His freshman year at Stanford was hard on Envela in every respect. His relationship with coach Brooks Johnson was adversarial. Envela struggled with injuries and the rigors of academic life in pre-medicine.
His best times of 10.70, 21.44 and 47.97 in the spring of '87 weren't close to his PRs in high school. And there was a petty theft charge for using school vouchers for a plane flight to L.A.
There also were rumors of Envela's arrest for impersonating a doctor on campus, that he experienced a mental breakdown, that he was bipolar.
'I heard all those things,' he says. 'Untrue, all of it. I wore greens around campus at times because I worked at the MRI imaging lab at the Stanford University hospital, but I never pretended to be a physician.'
After his freshman year, Envela approached Athletic Director Andy Geiger, told of his unhappiness with Johnson and said he wanted to leave Stanford. Geiger spoke with Johnson about it.
'From that point on, Brooks began a campaign to discredit me,' Envela claims. 'He was terrified of me, an 18-year-old kid from Oregon who stood up to him. He was a guy who preys upon people, and no one had ever stood up to him before.' Johnson could not be reached this week for comment.
But Envela admits his struggles went beyond Johnson. It was tough to deal with suddenly being a big fish in a big pond.
'I went from being Gus the All-American kid who everyone thought was perfect, to a freshman struggling academically, lonely as heck, and didn't have a support group there to help through it,' he says. 'I was depressed and unhappy.'
Envela never ran again for Stanford.
'Our mission with Gus is to see that he gets his degree,' Johnson said at the time. 'He obviously can't handle Pac-10 track and academics at the same time, so we are keeping him on scholarship but foregoing track so he can concentrate on his studies.'
Envela, who earned degrees in political science and African and African-American studies, says his final three years at Stanford were much better. He trained with former Olympian Renaldo Nehemiah and ran in meets unattached. And he matured as a person, he says.
'In many ways, it was liberating,' he says. 'I had a great time. I got two degrees without having to deal with Brooks and his crap.'
Upon graduation, Envela moved to Los Angeles. Over the next 15 years, he got married, had two daughters, engaged in tryouts as a wide receiver for three NFL teams, continued to train and compete as a sprinter, acted in a couple of movies and worked a series of jobs.
Since 2001, he has run a for-profit company called 'Voice of Democracy, United States, and Equatorial Guinea' in Beverly Hills. He is a consultant and contact point for Americans who want access to decision-makers in Africa, which he says earns him a good living.
Now divorced, Envela also has struggled in his relationship with his ex-wife. In 2000, when they were separated, he was arrested on a domestic abuse charge. He wound up being charged with a count of simple battery and underwent a year of counseling and three years of probation.
'I assume full responsibility for my actions,' he says. 'But we have a cordial relationship now. I want to be a role model, not only as a presidential candidate but as a father.'
Election time looms in Africa
Envela focuses much of his efforts these days in bringing down Obiang, a despot who came to power in 1979 after a military coup in which he executed his predecessor - his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema.
Equatorial Guinea, a country of 500,000 people that's comparable in size to Oregon's Marion County, is run with an iron hand by Obiang, who names his own Cabinet, makes laws by decree, acts as commander of chief of the armed forces and closely supervises military activity.
With pressure from such groups as Amnesty International to move toward democracy, the country staged an election in 2002. But the four opposition party candidates withdrew, and Obiang won with 98 percent of the vote in an election widely considered fraudulent.
'He is a dictator who has a history of human-rights abuses and intimidating opposition leaders,' Envela says. 'His son is his heir apparent, and if he becomes the next president, it would be a disaster.'
Envela, who was born in Equatorial Guinea but left at age 1, is a citizen of his native country but holds permanent residency in the U.S. He has not been to Equatorial Guinea since 1995 and says the government refuses to renew a passport that expired a year ago. He says his opposition to Obiang is the reason.
Since oil was discovered in the country in 1995, Obiang has exploited it. A U.S. Senate investigation in 2004 determined that Obiang, his family and senior officials siphoned off at least $35 million of oil revenues, which the dictator has denied.
'He is corrupt to the core,' Envela says. 'The guy wants to die in power and is willing to take people with him. He is brutal. He has no problem killing anyone - he has an $8 million hit on me - but he is very much a coward. He goes to the U.N. General Assembly every year (in New York) but refuses to meet with me.'
The next presidential election is scheduled for 2009. Envela intends to run, though he would have to move there to do so. He says he is continuing his efforts to be allowed into the country.
'If I can get on the ballot, there's a very good chance (to win),' he says. 'I could win the election on my family name alone. Plus, (Equatorial Guinea citizens) know about me through track and field. Get my name on the ballot, (Obiang) is gone.
'It will be a sacrifice, but I have already sacrificed a lot. I have sacrificed my family. I have sacrificed my safety. My little sacrifices can never match the suffering people have gone through in 40 years in my country.'
Envela mentions his father and tears up. 'My father, God rest his soul,' he says, composing himself. 'When I saw him laying in a casket, I realized the story ends the same for all of us. But some do more than others. It's going to take an Olympian-like effort to unseat (Obiang), but it's what we're going to do.'
This is no con man, no crackpot making idle boasts, says one longtime friend.
'Gus is honest, energetic and completely absorbed in this thing,' says San Diego physician John Macauley, a fellow Stanford grad and former center for the San Francisco 49ers. 'I think he would stack up pretty favorably to some of the presidential candidates in this country. He has a very busy mind, is very analytical and very sensitive, too. He's in touch with his feelings, which is an important component. It allows a person to balance the sensitivity with the analytical. You can't be completely sterile.'
Envela, who didn't come to Oregon often between 1990 and 2005, says he has spent much time in the state the past six months, visiting friends and relatives.
'I love this state tremendously,' he says. 'It took in my family and treated us well. I remember the people of Salem chipping in and sending me to nationals when I was a little kid and my family couldn't afford it. I've been to many parts of the world, but this is where my heart is. This is where I'll wind up some day.'
For now, Envela has a plan, both for himself and his native country. In three years, we'll know if it has been fulfilled.