Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country that sits on Africa's west coast, sent just four athletes to the Summer Olympics in 1984, including 16-year-old sprinter Gustavo Envela. He did not medal in any events, and he may have been forgotten if he hadn't won over the media during his time on the track.
Envela, a citizen of Equatorial Guinea and permanent resident of the U.S., became simply "Gus," and made such an impression that NBC's Connie Chung believed he was the only member of the country's team that year. A voice-over in a piece on Envela intones: "gifted... blessed... got so much talent."
"I remember watching him run that year. Everyone was talking about him," recalls Salvatore Williams, who worked merchandising at the Los Angeles games and today counts himself among Envela's closest friends.
The four-time Olympian is now 44, less sinewy but with the same movie star looks and broad smile. Over the course of his career, he became the best sprinter in the state of Oregon, graduated from Stanford University, won bit parts in Hollywood, such as in the movie Sgt. Bilko, consulted for an Africa-focused NGO, got married, and had children.
And after all that was finished, Envela set his sights on a race that may be as much of a long shot as winning the 100-meter dash in 1984. Envela is running for the presidency of Equatorial Guinea.
Confident, articulate but slightly manic when he speaks, Envela has been running his campaign, managed by longtime friend Williams, for more than a decade. Like other Equatorial Guinea presidential candidates, it is a campaign-in-exile, which Envela runs from the United States, where he has lived ever since his father, Equatorial Guinea's second ambassador to the United Nations, fled their homeland in 1970.
Envela has not been back to his home country since before the government revoked his passport seven years ago.
His father was pushed out of Equatorial Guinea because of disagreements with the government over free speech and human rights. The ambassador before Envela Sr. was executed after serving in his position for just over a month.
"It's a sinking titanic," Envela says of Equatorial Guinea's current government, which has been ruled for 33 years by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, commonly known as President Obiang.
Obiang's reign has run the gamut from the bizarre to the tyrannical. As Africa's longest ruling leader, Obiang won 96.7 percent of the vote for president in 2009, in an election widely believed to be fraudulent. In a previous election, an opposition candidate said he was afraid to campaign within Equatorial Guinea, out of fear Obiang would eat his testicles.
Photos of Obiang adorn the wall of nearly every shop in the country, which could be law or merely a strong suggestion. Foreign reporters are not welcomed in Equatorial Guinea, and a study of the most censored countries by the Committee to Protect Journalists put Equatorial Guinea near the top. A reporter working for The Guardian that managed to gain access to the country last year described his experience visiting a luxury spa in the capital of Malabo as "like something out of The Truman Show, one of many illusions in a land of artifice."
The U.S. State Department's reports on the country are more chilling. A short list of human rights abuses under Obiang's rule include: "abridgement of citizens' right to change their government; instances of physical abuse of prisoners and detainees by security forces; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention; harassment and deportation of foreign residents with limited due process; government corruption; violence and discrimination against women; suspected trafficking in persons; discrimination against ethnic minorities, and restrictions on labor rights."
Human Rights Watch calls Obiang's rule a "dictatorship."
By law, the next presidential elections are to be held in 2016. But Envela—in a view not shared by many others who follow the political situation in Equatorial Guinea—thinks Obiang could be removed before then.