In a vulnerable conversation with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about the pandemic and its impact on mental health, swimming legend Michael Phelps is specifically asked about the controversies surrounding tennis star Novak Djokovic and the Australian Open, and University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer Lia Thomas.
Djokovic, who is currently the world’s top ranked men’s tennis player, has sparked a media frenzy surrounding his vaccination status and his Australian visa being revoked, reinstated, and revoked again at the time of this story’s publication.
When asked about his stance on the Djokovic debacle, Phelps says, “As athletes we are role models.”
“We all need to be on the same page if we’re going to get through [COVID] together,” says Phelps. He continues, “I hope that we can agree on something and make it through [the pandemic] without losing more lives.”
While the most decorated Olympian of all time has been very open about his personal struggles with mental health, his interview with Amanpour marks the first time that he’s publicly commented on the pandemic itself. “I had COVID and it was terrible,” Phelps says. “I literally thought that I was going to die for 36 hours.”
Upon arrival in Australia last week, the Australian Border Force canceled Djokovic’s visa saying, “[He] failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements.” Australia has a vaccination requirement for all individuals, and while Djokovic believed he had received a medical exemption because of a late-December bout of the virus, border patrol agents canceled his visa.
Djokovic was subsequently detained until Monday when a judge ruled that he was allowed to stay in the country. In an appeal hearing, the tennis star’s legal team successfully argued that he had natural immunity from the virus from contracting it in December, which then qualified him for a medical exemption from Australia’s vaccination mandate.
Djokovic’s press conference following his visa reinstatement on Monday was abruptly cut off when the tennis player was asked about him attending events after knowingly testing positive for COVID. In a statement on his Instagram from Wednesday, Djokovic admitted to attending a photoshoot and an interview with L’Equipe in Serbia on December 18, after being notified of a positive test result from a sample collected on December 16.
The tennis player wrote, “I felt obligated to go ahead and conduct the L’Equipe interview as I did not want to let the journalist down.”
He continued, “On reflection, this was an error of judgment, and I accept that I should have rescheduled this commitment.”
While awaiting his COVID test results, a maskless Djokovic attended a children’s sport awards event in Belgrade on December 17 and explained that his rapid antigen test from that day was negative.
Today, Australian immigration minister Alex Hawke announced that Djokovic’s visa was being revoked again saying in a statement, “Today I exercised my power under section 133C(3) of the Migration Act to cancel the visa held by Mr Novak Djokovic on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.”
An appeal hearing to determine if Djokovic can play in the Australian Open, which begins on Sunday, will take place in Australia’s Federal Court on Saturday. If Djokovic’s bid for visa reinstatement fails, he may be banned from obtaining an Australian visa for three years.
Djokovic is currently tied for 20 Grand Slam wins with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. If his visa is reinstated, which seems increasingly unlikely, and he wins the Australian Open, Djokovic would have 21 Grand Slam titles, and hold this record solo.
At the end of the interview, Amanpour asked Phelps about another controversy in the sports world. Phelps was asked about his thoughts on University of Pennsylvania swimmer Thomas.
Speaking from a doping perspective, Phelps explains that he doesn’t believe he ever competed in a clean sport. “It has to be a level playing field,” he says.
“We all should feel comfortable with who we are in our own skin,” says Phelps. “This has been my sport for my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is for everybody to compete on an even playing field.”
In the first few years of his retirement, Phelps, the most-decorated Olympian in history, was relatively-quiet about issues in swimming more broadly. That began to change last summer, though, when he sat in on NBC commentary during the US Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games, where he began to open up more, including sparking headlines when he leveled criticism at US relay selection as well as Michael Andrew’s training.
Phelps is a former American swimmer who competed in five Olympics (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016). He is a 28-time Olympic medalist, with 23 golds to his resume. He is most known for his perfect Olympics in 2008 where he went 8-for-8 gold medals in Beijing. He holds the all-time record for Olympic gold medals.