Probably the most enduring image of one of the most successful Games of modern times is when Greg Louganis shocked the world by cracking his head while executing a dive in the qualifying rounds of the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988. He recovered to go on and win two golds making him the hero of the games. His greatest achievement came later, however.
American Greg Louganis was already a double Olympic champion and undisputedly the best diver in the world when he stepped up to the board to execute a fairly straight forward (by his high standards) reverse two-and-a-half somersault in pike position. What happened was beamed into every sitting room in the world and for a moment it seemed the atmosphere thinned as the whole world collectively took a sharp intake of breath.
Louganis clattered his head on the diving board below as he straightened out from the manoeuvre, but he emerged from the water only a little groggy whereupon he was sent for medical attention and his head was patched up. Luckily his failed dive attempt did not affect his progress, he dropped from first to fifth position but still only needed to finis in the top 12 to reach the finals. "I jumped off the board and heard this big clank," he said later. "That's my perception of the dive – I think my pride was hurt more than anything."
Still though, diving is a dangerous sport, Louganis had already watched Soviet competitor Sergei Shalibashvili die when he slammed his head into a concrete diving board, shattering his skull, while attempting the notoriously difficult three-and-a-half reverse somersault with tuck in 1983. However, Louganis was shook and the pressure was now on the all-American golden boy. Diving is all about facing your fears. Fear is the biggest obstacle to any diver, you can see this in the composure and process a diver takes before he jumps. Overcoming this fear was now Louganis’ biggest challenge and the competition smelled blood.
The next day however, when Louganis looked imperious and showed nerves of steel by executing perfect dives to claim gold in the 3m springboard event, the only time he looked at all nervous was when he was attempting the dive that caused him trouble the previous day. In the Platform final he executed the dangerous three-and-a-half reverse somersault with tuck to claim gold and retire a national and international hero.
What the world didn’t know at the time, was the true scale of his achievements. Here was one of the most famous and adored American sportsmen overcoming his fears to reach the pinnacle of his achievements. But that was only half the story. Louganis had been hiding the fact that he was gay. He was only out to close friends and family and it was a secret he guarded obsessively. He had experienced homophobia within the sport of diving but was determined that it would not hamper his ambitions to be the greatest diver of all time.
Then six months before the Olympics in Seoul, Louganis tested positive for HIV. To the world Louganis seemed almost the perfect, all-American, squeaky-clean athlete but in reality his story was even more inspirational than you could have imagined. Half Swedish and half Samoan, Louganis had been adopted by an American family and his start in life had been difficult. A nervous, introverted child, with many allergies and phobias as well as a stammer, he found a freedom of expression through dance. He later excelled at gymnastics, but it was in diving that he stood out as something of a prodigy.
Louganis survived all manner of setbacks with his physical development but excelled in the sport and shot to stardom in the US. When Italian sporting legend Klaus Dibiasi retired, Louganis was his natural successor to the position of ‘greatest’.
On hearing of his diagnosis his initial impulse was to withdraw from the Olympic team, but was convinced to stay on by his doctor (who was also his cousin), the chances of him spreading the disease were infinitesimal and besides, it was almost unheard of a diver of Louganis’ quality injuring himself in a dive. Louganis kept everything secret and was burdened with all this when stepping onto the springboard of his ill-fated dive. "Dealing with HIV was really difficult for me because I felt like, God, the US Olympic Committee needs to know this," he said. "US Diving needs to know it because what if I get sick at the Olympic Games and am unable to compete?" It only came to light after the games the pressure he was under.
After the games Louganis, who had studied drama in college went into acting with some success. In 1995 he came out publicly with an emotional interview with Oprah Winfrey. He also created a storm in the Olympic world by admitting he competed while infected. By and large though the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. "It's been so difficult, with the secrets and asking people to keep those secrets," he said. "The rest of my life is about not having secrets, and living my life openly and honestly."
Louganis recounted his story in his book ‘Breaking the Surface’ which stayed on the New York Times Best Seller List for five weeks. Since then Louganis has campaigned tirelessly as a gay and lesbian activist and for HIV awareness. His coach Ron O’Brien who had been by his side through thick and thin expressed relief at Louganis’ coming out. "I'm glad that I can finally share the story of his heroism," he said. "I never even told my wife. There are very few divers who could've come back from that springboard incident and won two gold medals. If that isn't courage, I don't know what is."
Louganis now lives in Louganis and divides his time between his activism and his new-found passion for dog training. Since 2010 he has been coaching diving to a broad range of ages and abilities. His story of commitment, natural ability and steel in the face of adversity remains one of the most inspirational sporting narratives of our time. The Louganis story has been filmed and written about countless times but he will always be immortalised falling through the air with muscular precision and elegance. Not falling from grace, more falling with grace.
by Hugo Mc Cafferty
Credits: Sports Illustrated
Rich Clarkson/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image