By Giri Nathan
Sometimes you gotta hand it to Novak Djokovic. The world No. 1 has had some nice moments in quarantine. He streamed a wide-ranging, unusually candid conversation with Andy Murray that probably amounts to the most interesting public comment either player has ever made about tennis. He also seems to have spearheaded the player relief-fund efforts. But in terms of net impact, the good he did for fellow tennis players is, sadly, offset by his embrace of pseudoscience during a pandemic.
In late April, Djokovic revealed that he was “opposed to vaccination” and would not be comfortable if vaccination was a condition for playing on tour. This anti-vaxx commentary fits into a larger constellation of unorthodox Djokovic beliefs, which include, but are not limited to: Telekinesis is real; gluten allergy can be diagnosed by pressing a slice of bread against a forearm and noting the arm’s decreased strength; surgery should be eschewed in favor of natural “self-healing mechanisms.”
These are fine (if rock-stupid) things to believe in private. At least that way the only guinea pig is yourself. The real harm lies in broadcasting them in public, as one of the best-known sports people in the world, and specifically one of the richest and most influential living Serbs. A Serbian epidemiologist working with the state to contain COVID-19 said that Djokovic had “created misconceptions,” and had this note to offer: “Maestro, I wish you all the best. In future, however, try to avoid answers to questions about vaccinations because you have a huge impact.” The whole family is chipping in, too: Novak’s wife, Jelena, was censored by Instagram after circulating a conspiracy theory that coronavirus spreads on 5G cellular networks.
This week, Novak hosted another livestream with a guest he has described as his “dear friend, Persian brother from another mother, wonderful soul.” This man, Chervin Jeferiah, shills nootropic garbage from a company called Cymbiotika. As the two brothers from other mothers amassed a live audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they veered into pure pseudoscience and egged each other on. Djokovic, in a Mickey Mouse polo shirt, spoke his truth about how positive emotion can purify toxic food; Jeferiah, sporting the kind of computer-generated beard gradient that should immediately arouse suspicion, signaled his assent with ostentatious prayer hands and nods. Tennis writer Ben Rothenberg clipped and shared some of the most concerning segments, but here are some transcripts of Djokovic’s commentary:
By asking, by being grateful, I opened more to those nutrients. This is something that is not, I guess, linked to any form of official way of presenting nutrition and how you should eat and how you should drink. It’s the connection that you are talking about, the innate connection, being present, being conscious of the moment, being conscious.
I’ve seen people, and I know some people, that through that energetical transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, they manage to turn the most toxic food, or maybe most polluted water, into the most healing water. Because water reacts. Japanese scientists have proven that, in an experiment, that molecules of water react to our emotions, to what has been said.
Djokovic, visibly zoning out at this point, then allowed Jeferiah to pitch his viewership on a “nutrient-dense, micellated—which is a liposomal technology—adaptogenic herbal complex.” Luckily it is a “Thai, chai, vanilla spice, so it goes directly with matchas, and coffees, and things like that.” The bottle, which bears the reassuring label “ADVANCED BRAIN NUTRIENTS,” carries a $50 price tag, which is a recurring fee. (Cancel at any time.)
While it is humiliating on its face for the world’s top male tennis player to associate himself with obvious snake oil, what’s actually sad and dangerous is the underlying pattern in Novak Djokovic’s thinking. After finally assenting to elbow surgery in 2018, Djokovic said he wept for days after and felt guilty for a month. “I was trying to avoid getting on that table because I am not a fan of surgeries or medications,” he told The Telegraph. “I am just trying to be as natural as possible, and I believe that our bodies are self-healing mechanisms.” (For what it’s worth, a few months after his surgery he broke a two-year major title drought at Wimbledon, then won four of the next six.)
That suspicion underpins much of what Novak Djokovic says about health: Self-reliance and positive thinking and unorthodox methods can resolve anything that ails you; even polluted water can be made wholesome with gratitude and a smile; conventional health care becomes a last resort. It would be difficult to pinpoint a worse possible time to begin propagating this exact message, but congratulations, Novak, you did it. You couldn’t wait until the end of a pandemic to undermine confidence in public-health best practices. The entire world is trying to adopt measures like social distancing and contract tracing and he’s fueling skepticism about the very concept of a vaccine. Maybe these guys shouldn’t ever have this much free time.
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