In a new documentary series on PBS, Bruce Feiler accompanies Americans on pilgrimages to six of the world's holiest sites.
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.
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.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)
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.
Here & Now resident chef and cookbook author Kathy Gunst shares her list of the best cookbooks of the year.