‘Conspirituality’: The radicalisation of wellness advocate Novak Djokovic

Opinion: The tennis player is part of a new socio-political movement – ‘conspirituality’

 Novak Djokovic takes part in a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 13, 2022. Photograph:  Mike Frey/AFP via Getty Images

Novak Djokovic takes part in a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 13, 2022. Photograph: Mike Frey/AFP via Getty Images

 

Why has Nigel Farage been seen in Belgrade supporting Novak Djokovic’s family in the tennis player’s battle against the Australian authorities? Why are leading Conservative figures such as prominent Fox News hosts, Senator Ted Cruz and the alt-right figurehead, Alex Jones (founder of the notorious InfoWars) vocally supporting Djokovic’s anti-vaccination stance?

(Though Djokovic does not typically comment on the vaccine debate, he has in the past said that he is “opposed to vaccination”.)

The answer has its roots in the sudden growth in a new socio-political development called “conspirituality” – the radical wing of the wellness movement.

The US national public health agency has argued there is a growing middle class 'wellness' movement that has been radicalised through social media

Conspirituality sounds like good, clean fun: you want to be the best version of yourself and have a natural and healthy life. You dabble in meditation and clean eating before adopting a strict organic and holistic approach to your life. And then your beliefs.

But as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US national public health agency, has argued, there is a growing middle class “wellness” movement that has been radicalised through the social media conduits of Facebook groups, WhatsApp messages and Instagram Live videos.

Conspirituality (an amalgam of “conspiracy” and “spirituality”) describes the state of mind that develops when spiritual holistic beliefs begin to align with a libertarian ideology that is sceptical of modern science/medicine and denies the efficacy of measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and vaccination.

At this stage of the pandemic we all most likely know someone who has journeyed this route: a belief in new age or alternative “holistic” medicine that develops into coronavirus conspiracy theory.

Radicalisation, given its sinister connotations, may seem like too strong a word in this context but just consider the case of Novak Djokovic, whose journey is a fable for the times we live in.

The once happy-go-lucky tennis player, known for his comedic impersonations, his fluency in six languages and his intelligence, was transformed into someone who has suggested it’s possible to change the molecular properties of water through emotions and who believes in telekinesis (the ability to move physical objects by mental power) and telepathy (the transference of thought from one person to another using just “brain waves”).

It appears to have begun with a simple change to his diet.

At the 2010 Australian Open tennis tournament Djokovic was cruising to victory in his quarter-final match against France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga when he developed trouble breathing and began vomiting, before losing the match. At the time he was 23 and had been a tour professional for six years with just one Grand Slam victory to show for his prodigious talents.

Watching his physical collapse in that match was a Serbian doctor called Dr Igor Cetojevic - who is euphemistically described as “unconventional”. He arranged to meet up with Djokovic to discuss what he thought the problem was.

Cetojevic’s examination was a little unusual, including holding a slice of white bread over Djokovic’s stomach and detecting “resistance”. He advised put Djokovic to go on a strict gluten-free diet. Within two weeks, Djokovic (who had grown up in the pizzeria his parents owned in Serbia) said he had never felt better, fitter or more energised, thanks to his diet of vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and healthy oils.

Over the next 11 years, Djokovic won 19 further Grand Slam tournaments - a figure that now ties him with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the most successful tennis player in the history of the sport.

And he remains obsessive about his diet. While other players may celebrate a Grand Slam win by wolfing down hamburgers or guzzling Champagne, in 2012 Djokovic sat in the Melbourne changing room, broke one (and only one) square of chocolate and allowing it to rest on his tongue for a few minutes. Then it was straight back to the beans, nuts and seeds.

This is why Novak Djokovic is the way he is. Twelve years ago an encounter with a doctor changed the trajectory of his life, and his career was radically altered. The unconventional and alternative have paid off in spades for him.

No surprise then to see him further embrace “Holistic Wellness”. Djokovic has been well and truly “red-pilled” - a quasi-political belief referring to the process in which a person’s perspective is dramatically transformed, in this case holistic radicalisation.

Djokovic has referred to telekinesis and telepathy on public forums as “gifts from this highest order, the source, the God, whatever, that allows us to understand the higher power and higher order in ourselves”.

During this pandemic, he appeared in an Instagram Live video with a popular “Wellness guru” Chevrin Jafariah, where the tennis player appeared to endorse the belief that just by staring at contaminated food or polluted water and having positive thoughts you could make that food nutritious and that water clean.

Not so long ago, such a publicly stated belief would have been unacceptable; today on Instagram Live it gets you hundreds of thousands of smiley face emojis.

His beliefs in telekinesis, telepathy, higher orders and transforming food and water by thought alone you can charitably dismiss as being those of a crank or oddball. But pull at the threads of his anti-vaccination belief and something different emerges.

In April of 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic, he publicly announced via Zoom that he was opposed to the Covid vaccination and would not take it. At the same time, his wife, Jelena, got put on the naughty step by Instagram for sharing a video that linked the coronavirus outbreak to 5G technology.

That Djokovic is now being supported by far-right figures tells us something about the dark side of wellness

Two months later he organised a tennis tournament in his native Serbia. There were full audiences for the matches, there was no social distancing, and players were filmed dancing in nightclubs during the tournament. Djokovic, his wife, his coach, four other players and many members of the support staff caught the virus.

Djokovic, his wife, his coach and the four other players are all rich. We heard nothing about the infection rates of the ball-boys, the locker-room attendants, the thousands of people, many of them elderly, sitting in the stands.

Novak Djokovic, believer in wellness and New Age ideals, has been radicalised. That he is now being supported by far-right figures tells us something about the dark side of wellness. He may have been shabbily treated and tied up in red tape by Australia in recent days, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion – given what we now know about his actions and movements over the last few weeks – that Novak Djokovic is a threat to public health.