Written by BLC Intern Amrit Ahluwalia
Some material and information used in this article originally appeared on ESPN.com at part of their promotion on the website for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue 2016. The link for the original article is found at the bottom of this piece.
With the 2016 Olympics on this month, it’s an apt time to reminisce about America’s Olympic heroes of years past. Greg Louganis, a four time gold medalist, is not only a champion athlete for diving but also a champion activist for the gay and HIV+ communities. Recently he posed for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue 2016 and gave an interview talking about his athletic and personal experiences, as well as his current lifestyle and activism. A profile for Louganis and excerpts from the interview are given below.
Who: Greg Louganis
Claim to Fame: Olympic Champion Diver, first athlete to win gold in both the 3 M springboard and 10 M platform in two Olympics (Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988). Also won golds at the 1978, 1982, and 1986 World Championships and set records with his scores for his dives.
Positive Journey: Was diagnosed about 6 months prior to the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Spoke publicly for the first time about his diagnosis in 1995.
During the 1988 Olympics, Louganis’s athletic life violently collided with his recently discovered health issues in the most terrifying possible way. During his qualifying round of dives in the 3 M springboard event, Louganis hit his head on the board, suffered a concussion, and bled into the water. He was competing in a country that would have literally deported him had his HIV status been disclosed and Louganis had to make essentially a split second decision as to whether he would continue to compete or withdraw due to his injuries:
I was paralyzed by fear. I didn’t know what my responsibility was, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare for my next dive, if I was going to continue. It was a strange time. I remember when we finally finished and we had our team dinner at the end of Seoul, we were handed our Olympic rings and then we were supposed to share something with our family of divers. I got up there and I turned to my coach, Ron O’Brien, and I said, “Nobody will ever know what we’ve just been through.” Because I didn’t think anybody would, because I didn’t think that I would live long enough to see it.
Louganis went on to compete and win the event the next day, as well as another gold in the 10 M platform diving competition. He finished the Olympics having made history, but also dodging a massive bullet. When he came out as HIV positive in 1995, this sparked a huge, retrospective controversy about the dangers of his blood being in the water and perceived irresponsibility for not alerting the officials. However, the chief of HIV-AIDS surveillance at the CDC confirmed, with doctors’ advice, that the huge amount of water in the pool would have diluted the virus and the chlorine would have effectively killed it before it could infect anyone. Furthermore, mere skin contact would not be enough to transmit the virus so no athletes were at a legitimate risk and Louganis had not acted irresponsibly.
Current Activism: Louganis is currently living and thriving with HIV. He recently married to his longtime partner in 2013 and has also become involved with the United States Diving Team again. Louganis has been coaching young divers and even mentored 2016 Olympians in the US program.
While being HIV+ obviously troubled Louganis during his later competition years, he also faced prejudice and stigma from people, even his own teammates, about being gay. In the article he recounts multiple awkward situations regarding roommates and individual’s personal beliefs within the diving team. Diving, and sports in general, have changed drastically in their perception of and attitudes towards LGBTQIA athletes in recent years, however. One of the world’s most talented and visible divers, Tom Daley of Great Britain, came out as bisexual recently and with him there have been other inspiring coming out stories in major US sports such as Michael Sam in the NFL, Robbie Rodgers in MLS, Jason Collins in the NBA. as well as many other public figures. Louganis hopes that this recent acceptance of LGBTQIA athletes soon evolves into increased acceptance of HIV+ athletes and individuals in general.
“I try to live by example — being gay, being HIV-positive — you know, life goes on. HIV taught me that I’m a lot stronger than I ever believed I was. Also, not to take anything for granted. I didn’t think I would see 30, and here I am at 56. I never know what’s going to be around the corner. I don’t think of anything really as a failure; you’re just learning lessons, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons already”
-Greg Louganis, 2016