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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Olympic Runner Makes Statements On And Off The Track

Nick Symmonds runs during the Penn Relays athletics meet, April 28, 2012, in Philadelphia. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Nick Symmonds runs during the Penn Relays athletics meet, April 28, 2012, in Philadelphia. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Nick Symmonds is one of the best 800-meter runners in the world. He brought a silver medal home from the World Track and Field Championships in Moscow this summer, when he finished second to Ethiopian teenager Mohammed Aman in the final. Symmonds also finished 5th in the 800-meter final in the Olympics in London in 2012. That was one of the fastest races ever over that distance. Symmond’s time — 1:42:95 — was a personal best and would have been good enough for a medal in every other Olympic 800-meter final in the history of the games. But the winner of that race, David Rudisha, just happened to set a world record.

“Too often, athletes go into a press conference and are asked difficult questions and they say ‘no comment.’”

Today Nick Symmonds has his sights set on the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. “That would be my third Olympic team,” he tells Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti. “I have the speed there, I just need to have it shake out for me in the finals. Finishing second in Moscow proved to me that I can get it done. I just have to stay healthy, continue working closely with my coaches and — if I can make the team in 2016 — and hopefully come home with a medal, an Olympic medal.”

Symmonds doesn’t only make waves on the track. He’s also outspoken on hot button social issues like gay rights and gun control. In Moscow, he dedicated his silver medal to his gay and lesbian friends as a protest against Russia’s anti-gay laws. And recently Symmonds wrote a column in Runner’s World, in which he called on Congress to ban assault weapons and handguns for everyone but police and military personnel. This stance comes from someone who grew up around guns in a hunting family.

He says he takes some heat from other athletes for his outspoken opinions, but he’s not apologizing for expressing them. “Too often, athletes go into a press conference and are asked difficult questions and they say ‘no comment’ and I never wanted to be that kind of athlete. I have opinions on everything and I have logical reasons why I have come to those conclusions and I’ll tell you why I feel that way.”

There has been some talk of athletes boycotting the upcoming winter Olympics in Russia, but Symmonds doesn’t agree. “What I would advocate for is the athletes coming together and in a meaningful way displaying their displeasure with the law. I felt that the way I did it [in Moscow] was respectful enough, but at the same time I was able to use that platform that I was given to voice my displeasure at the way they were trying to control their people.”

800-Meter Final, Moscow, World Championships 2013
800-Meter Final, London Olympics 2012






UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Can Symmonds hang on? Mohammed Aman is getting alongside him. Aman has got past him. Gold for Ethiopia, silver, United States, bronze for Djibouti.

CHAKRABARTI: That was the moment American 800-meter runner Nick Symmonds won the silver medal in this summer's World Track Championships in Moscow. Symmonds dedicated his medal to his gay and lesbian friends in response to Russia's crackdown on its gay community. Now, this outspoken athlete is taking on another controversial issue: gun control.

Symmonds is calling for a nearly universal ban on assault rifles and handguns. Writing in his Runner's World blog, Symmonds says police and military personnel should be the only people allowed to use the weapons. He joins us from KLCC in Eugene, Oregon to talk about it. Nick Symmonds, welcome to the show.

NICK SYMMONDS: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Great to have you. So, first of all, in the magazine, there's a picture of you holding a shotgun. So, apparently, you've been around guns all your life. Why are you calling for a ban on - right now?

SYMMONDS: Yeah, great question. I mean, I was raised in Boise, Idaho. I come from a long line of hunters. Hunting and being responsible with guns is something that's very important to me. You know, that being said, owning guns that are made to kill other human beings is not something that I've really been raised with.

I do own a handgun, and I said in my blog with Runner's World I would gladly hand in that handgun and all my other guns if I knew that doing so would prevent every gun-related homicide in America for the rest of our existence. And I - for someone to tell me that they wouldn't do that, I can't imagine.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, your call for a ban on assault rifles and handguns for everyone except police and military. I have to say, is even more - extreme isn't the right word, but it's even more ambitious than even most gun control advocates have been calling for. Why take it that far?

SYMMONDS: Honestly, I just - I can't hear a good argument from the side that wants no gun control at all. If they could give me a good argument, I'm - I am a gun owner, and, you know, I consider myself an independent voter. You could sway me if you would at least give me a decent argument. But the only argument that I've heard thus far is that the Founding Fathers wanted us to have guns which, you know, is - obviously, I would argue that they didn't have assault rifles back then when they drew up the Constitution.

And handguns, you know, they say that they need them for protection, and that if we called for a ban on handguns, then the criminals wouldn't hand theirs in. So I simply say to that, OK, then we raise the, you know, the minimum term for being caught with an illegal weapon to life in prison, then no one's going to walk around with a handgun. And these are not original ideas. There are dozens of Westernized countries that are doing the same thing all over the world, and they're much, much safer societies for doing so.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Nick, in Runner's World, you write about the fact that you traveled to Los Angeles International Airport on the day that a TSA agent was shot and killed, which very recently happened. First of all, describe - when you got there to LAX, what did you see?

SYMMONDS: Yeah. That morning, I woke up, my mom actually called me, because she was crying on the phone, asking me if I was OK. And I had no idea what she was talking about, so I turned on the news and, sure enough, saw that there was a deranged gunman with an assault rifle going through LAX and shooting people, and actually killed a TSA officer.

That afternoon, when I tried to fly out of LAX, we weren't allowed to drive up to the terminals. So I had to park my car at Dollar Rental and hike two miles from Dollar to LAX to try to go through security. And I just couldn't help but look at the TSA officers - who are really hardworking men and women, you know, in a somewhat unglorious job - and just wonder what was going through their heads knowing that one of their compatriots or one of their colleagues had been shot down that morning, and that it just as easily could have been them.

For me, I'm on the road nine months out of the year and I'm flying, you know, every single week. And one of the only places I feel really safe is on the other side of that security, because I know that not everybody is walking around with a gun. And I just don't think we need to be a society where everyone should be walking around with a gun.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Nick, if I may, I'd love to ask you about the endless controversy when it comes to athletes who speak out on political issues. I mean, where do you fall on that? You have spoken out before. For example, when you won second place, you had that second place finish in the 800 meters at the World Track Championships in Moscow this summer, you dedicated your medal to your gay and lesbian friends in response to Russia's crackdown on the gay community there. So, do you feel that it's your duty as an athlete to speak out on political issues?

SYMMONDS: I don't want to say that it's anyone's duty as an athlete to do anything except their job, as best as they can. My job in Russia was to win a medal for the United States of America. Having done that, I saw an opportunity to use this platform that I've been given to maybe speak out against something that I saw was unjust.

You know, for me, it makes me energized about my own career to know that I'm training day-in and day-out to represent my country and to win medals for them, but also to help further causes that I think are very, very important.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I wonder about exactly that point, that you are representing - when you run internationally, you're representing the United States. Have any people come to you and said, you know, because of that, they disagree with your willingness to speak out on political issues, and they say, you know, hey, politics doesn't belong on the track in any way, shape or form?

SYMMONDS: Yeah. And they said, you know, you're an athlete. What makes you qualified to speak out about anything? Or some people have gone as far as to say I'm a disgrace to America and I shouldn't be allowed to represent the country because I can't keep my mouth shut. And I just laugh at these people. The First Amendment - well, let's gets the Second Amendment aside.

First Amendment is the right to free speech. And as an American, I'm going to exercise that right domestically and internationally, barring getting arrested in Russia for speaking out against their laws, where my First Amendment doesn't necessarily apply.

CHAKRABARTI: Have you heard from people about your writing on guns?

SYMMONDS: There's more comments on that blog than I think any other column written for runnersworld.com. Too often, you know, athletes go into a press conference and are asked difficult questions and they say no comment, no comment. And I never wanted to be that kind of athlete. I have opinions on everything, and I have logical reasons why I have come to those conclusions and formed those opinions. And I'll give you my opinion, and I'll tell you why I feel that way. So nothing's off limits for me. I enjoy having that conversation with the media, and I will discuss any topic with them.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So since nothing's off limits for you - never tell that to a journalist. It opens the door wide open.

But let me ask you about - a little bit more about Russia and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi there. I mean, there has been talk. Some people have called for the United States to boycott the games because of, again, that crackdown on the gay community there. Do you advocate that? Do you agree?

SYMMONDS: You know, I'm a little bit biased as an Olympian who knows how hard these winter athletes have trained to compete and represent their country. I'm not for a boycott, and I also don't know if a boycott necessarily accomplishes what the people boycotting are trying to accomplish, as we saw in the '80s. What I would advocate for is the athletes coming together and, in a meaningful way, displaying their displeasure with the law.

You know, for me it was straddling that fine line between breaking the law but also being respectful to the host country. So I felt that the way I did it was respectful enough and - to the point of not violating the laws that they had set up. But at the same time I was able to, you know, use that platform that I've been given to voice my displeasure with the way that they were trying to control their people.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, that's American middle distance runner Nick Symmonds. We'll link you to his Runner's World piece about gun control at our website, hereandnow.org. Nick Symmonds, thank you so much.

SYMMONDS: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: And when you're at our website, let us know what you think about sports and politics and gun control. Again, that's hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • jmr

    Good for him.

  • Rob

    I listened to him on your show and he said he is willing to hear other’s opinions on why we shouldn’t get rid of handguns and assault weapons. His reason was there was no good reason we should have these weapons and only police and military should have them. What he is completely and very naively failing to see is that police, authority, and our government already have power and authority over its citizens and have more than proven and demonstrated a willingness to abuse that power over us and others (NSA’s unconstitutional surveillance, violent crackdown on peaceful dissent by the occupy movement effectively leaving then voiceless, demonizing and over punishment of whistleblowers who have exposed the truth about illegal, unconstitutional conduct and programs of those in power, “targeted” killing which has killed many innocent people, lying about WMD’s in order to go to war which resulted in countless thousands of deaths and debilitating injuries – just to name a few). The reason I would give him to allow citizens to own weapons are BECAUSE of who he thinks should be the only ones to be allowed to have them. I’ve heard people like him argue “do you really think if you had a gun you could defend yourself against them and the weapons they possess if they came after you.” The obvious answer is no but if everybody stood together it would be more difficult. Why cede any rights to people who only want more power for them and less for everybody else? The people he thinks should be allowed to have all the weapons – those with all the power already – are THE reason not to take away all the guns from the citizens. We should never have the power so concentrated with such a small group and so absent among the rest of the citizens.

    • Robert Thomas

      If everyone stood together as you suggest, wouldn’t they clank annoyingly loudly?

    • disqus_r7mSdmeNHS

      Look, the police are as scared as the rest since they don’t know who has a weapon or who does not, as it stands now. Also, when they do shoot and kill a citizen, their alibi is they felt threatened. What looked like a weapon is often something all together innocuous. This is another reason why I agree with Symmonds that only police officers need a gun, but as things stand now, just about anyone can be carrying a gun. So many children are being killed by guns. How can anyone not see the reality that is before us.

  • Frog

    So for Meghna confiscating handguns is not “extreme”? Just “ambitious”. I’m wondering what her definition of extreme is?

  • Robert Thomas

    Oh dear. The illusion that this sort of life pursuit engenders, that anyone cares or should care what an athlete thinks about anything, in concert with a breathtaking dose of narcissism. What must this young fellow be like to be with at family holiday celebrations?

  • Beth

    Ironic that Nick Symmonds disagrees with the Russians view on openly gay/lesbian folks, but yet Russia has gun control pretty much like Nick Symmonds supports.
    Fact he doesn’t seem to realize that its criminals who misuse firearms, not law abiding people.

    Nor does he understand that most gun violence is in cities not rural areas. He wants the Constitutional Right of free speech but doesn’t want others to have their second amendment rights.

    Yeah banning personal firearm use is working great in places like N Korea, China, and other dictatorships.

  • Joel Farber

    Really boring commentary. He may be a fine athelete but I don’t find his opinions on gun control, or other social matters, very insightful or relavant. I think Wyoming Public Radio could do much better with it’s programming. I find myself questioning my support. I diversity of opinion is good but please carry programming that has some meat on the bone.

  • Jim Crow

    Mr Symmons – The 2nd amendment has very little to do with hunting (probably has nothing to do with hunting) – it has to do with government control of all of the weapons as European rulers did versus bows and arrows. Guns were the first things the Jim Crow laws took away. When the King wanted to stop you from talking about an issue he did not want you to defend yourself against his agents. Today, we see the freedom forces in Syria use assault rifles to maintain their positions against the planes, tanks and superior might of the Syrian Army. The argument is whether this country needs the second amendment anymore or whether it should be abolished.

    • disqus_r7mSdmeNHS

      Are we not a government by the people, for the people with a government that needs effective checks and balances to keep it working for all the people? Or must we also change how the campaigns are funded? Maybe we need to look at how candidates for public office are elected. This is a more important issue that stems from our fear that our government can morph into a government such as the one in Syria. I say we do not need a militia but a government elected by the people who have been truthfully informed and there’s the rub.

  • John

    Do me a favor, Mr Simmons: Please don’t go out to compete and earn medals for our country if you’re putting down the 2nd amendment. The amendment does not simply mean everyone can walk around with a gun. I don’t. I don’t see the majority of my community members holstering firearms. Look at the 1st amendment, which you praised about on the show- it precedes the right to bear arms: You can say anything you want in voice, print or sign. The founding fathers, whom you also praised, were assembling a social contract for future Americans to abide by after a time when their own ruling government had oppressed them. They took up arms to combat those who wanted them silenced. Consequently, they first impressed into the constitution that we can say what we please, and then allow us to bear arms to protect our selves should anyone choose to attack our bodies in order to silence us. Anyone, knowing that there are those who live and inflict harm unto others who do not share the same views. It is unfortunate that many have misused this right for poor reasons, but it is also unfortunate that someone who goes on radio to bash one amendment and enforce another did not take a moment to consider the reason for our ancestors to have ordered these social rights in the manner they had so correctly done. If you choose to run for America, please run and win for all of America. Thank you.

    • John

      My apologies on the misspell (Simmons). Should be Symmonds.

    • disqus_r7mSdmeNHS

      The problem was and still is the proliferation of guns!

  • Busterbrown

    Gun control is not about keeping the community safe!! It is about government dependency and people control. This country’s communist progressive movement wants you to depend solely on the government for your safety.

    “Laws that forbid the carrying of arms, disarm only those who are neither inclined, nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants. They serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.” -Thomas Jefferson, 1764

    18 years of patrolling streets, shoot outs and dealing with criminals first hand has accentuated Thomas Jefferson’s point in my mind.

    Responsible dependable Americans have a duty to get a gun and learn how to use it. Your safety is your responsibility!

    Thanks for reading,

  • disqus_r7mSdmeNHS

    Nick, thank you so very much for sharing your ideas on assault weapons and handguns. I am so much in agreement with you. You have much courage to state your opinion on this very controversial subject. There are those in this country who would like to see every man, woman and child with a gun in their hand. The police and military who need to be thoroughly trained in the use, when and under what circumstances a gun would be necessary, are the only persons who need guns, and even then, their use should be kept at an absolute minimum. Other than those persons, none of us needs to possess guns.
    The 2nd amendment is being used to protect the guns rather than the people who choose not to possess them. These issues of gun possession, carrying, concealing etc. are a reflection of those without courage in life or death. Their fears seem to have taken over their rational thinking. I agree also that people who find an absolute need to have a gun or assault weapon need to be sent to rehabilitation for life or until their fears morph into courage and a desire to rejoin a society that prefers to live in peace.
    Rose of Texas

  • texasadam

    Symmonds says that he would be for life sentences for anyone who
    possesses a hand gun after his theoretical ban. His argument is that
    people wouldn’t have hand guns if they faced such a stiff penalty. Think
    about that for a second or two…silly isn’t it? Its an argument an 8th
    grader might make but not something we would expect from an educated? adult. To chase the ridiculous
    logic of Mr. Symmonds for a minute, we would assume that most crime could be resolved with the threat of life imprisonment.
    Drunk driving kills thousands every year so using Mr. Symmonds logic we
    should just up the penalty for first offense drunk driving to life imprisonment. Hey, everyone stopped drinking and driving because of their fear of going to jail for life. Problem solved! Cocaine and heroin dealers contribute to the deaths of thousands every year – life in prison. yeah I know, ridiculous and so is Mr. Symmonds.

    • Tim`

      Even better, how about we up the maximum penalty for murder? Voila! No more murders!

      • Tim

        Oh wait–we already have life in prison for murder… Ok, how about the death penalty? Yeah, that will surely stop all murders.

  • catfish

    This guy literally said he wants a law that would turn every American with a handgun and “assault rifle” into a criminal that spends life in prison if they don’t hand them in?!?! Wow…scary that someone actually believes that. I’m a firm believer the 2nd amendment guarantees all the others and we start chipping it away until it doesn’t exist, it’ll be a slippery slope.

  • Scott Draper

    What a perfect combination of arrogance and naivete’..In every totalitarian society, the very first thing they do is seize the weapons. Maybe you should read a book sometime, Mr. Symmonds. I’m glad you are just another mouthy athlete.

  • Don

    Totally support Nick’s position. The 2nd amendment was ill conceived and outdated.

  • LeftShooter


    I know a lot about firearms, firearms training and gun safety and I have invested a great deal of time studying crime and violence and their root causes. I also know a good deal about the Constitution generally and the 2nd Amendment specifically. Accordingly, I think it would make sense for you to ask me to share my expertise regarding track and field and the 800-meter event—if, that is, Here & Now wants to continue to provide “news” as authoritative and relevant as was this interview.

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