Greg Louganis knew something was wrong as soon as his feet left the springboard. It was September 19, 1988, and the American diver, who had won two gold medals at the previous Olympics, was competing in the Seoul Olympics preliminaries. He later told ABCIt’s Barbara Walters that he knew he “was going to be close because I could feel it in my own body.” What worried me was clapping my hands, so I came out wide so the board would go through and not hit it. I started to come out of the dive and I heard that loud thud… ”
That “big thud” was the back of Louganis’ head, which collided with the springboard after his body spun in two and a half tumbles and then unfolded to meet the water. After a doctor applied four stitches to his injury, Louganis was able to return to the diving board and finish the round in third place. He went on to win the gold medal and became the first man to win two consecutive Olympic gold medals in the springboard and platform diving events.
But what initially seemed like a simple comeback story became more complicated when Louganis revealed seven years later that he was gay and had been diagnosed with HIV six months before the 1988 Games.
Some have criticized Louganis for not disclosing his diagnosis at the time. “I think Greg had the right not to tell anyone he was HIV positive, but (he should) be honest and fair with the doctor who treated him. The doctor was in danger. He should have told her, “said US Olympian Wendy Lucero, who competed in the springboard competition after the men’s event in Seoul. Los Angeles Times after Louganis’ interview in 1995.
Louganis himself said he was immediately worried, telling Walters in 1995 that as soon as he realized he had hit his head, “I didn’t know if I was cut or not. , but I just wanted to hold back the blood and just not [let] for someone to touch it.
But that was in 1988, a time when attitudes toward HIV / AIDS and LGBTQ identity often turned hostile.
1980s: AIDS and LGTBQ stigmatization
“First of all, the concept of ‘LGBTQ’ didn’t even exist in 1988,” explains Jennifer Brier, author of Infectious Ideas: The United States’ Policy Response to the AIDS Crisis and director of gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “1988 is before the word ‘queer’ was taken over, so there wouldn’t even have been an LGBTQ acronym in 1988.”
She adds that “in 1988, we assume that Olympians are just not gay. . . and in the cultural imagination of the time, people living with HIV were not gold medalists, they were dying.
In the late 1980s, the country was in a state of deep fear over a disease that had recently reached epidemic proportions. The disease which became known as AIDS was not first described by the Centers for Disease Control in an American medical journal until 1981. In 1982, the New York Times published its first front page article on AIDS. And it wasn’t until September 1985 that President Ronald Reagan even publicly mentioned the word AIDS. The disease had then become a public health crisis.
In 1986, C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general of the United States under President Reagan, oversaw the sending of an AIDS information pamphlet to every American, detailing everything scientists had understood thus far. about the disease. But there was still no effective treatment, people were dying by the thousands, and many Americans mistakenly thought it was “gay disease.” In 1988, HIV / AIDS had already infected 82,362 people and killed 61,816 people, according to the Foundation for Research on AIDS.
“It’s not like Greg Louganis is operating in a vacuum,” says Brier. “There’s no way to understand her decision to keep this a secret as something about just him. The political culture, the social and health landscape was really scary.
The fear and stigma surrounding AIDS was so intense, in fact, that a year before Louganis’ fateful dive, residents of the town of Arcadia, Fla. Attempted to ban three young brothers, Randy, Robert and Ricky Ray, to enroll in the local school because they were HIV positive. The brothers contracted HIV from blood transfusions at a young age and residents feared they could infect other students. A federal judge overturned the ban in 1987, but the family then lost their home to a suspicious fire and decided to move out.
When the diagnosis was a “death sentence”
That same year, American pianist Liberace died of AIDS, but his doctor initially covered up the musician’s having AIDS and instead told the audience that he had died of cardiac arrest. “The stigma around AIDS was so strong that it was there even after death,” says Ronald O. Valdiserri, AIDS expert and epidemiologist at Emory University who led HIV / STD prevention at the Centers for Disease Control. In the 1980’s.
“There was also a sense of futility,” adds Valdiserri. “Most people infected with HIV at the time thought the infection would kill them. “
Louganis also thought his diagnosis was “a death sentence,” recounting ESPN in 2016, “I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to pack my bags and go home and lock myself in my house and wait until I die.'”
Louganis coach Ron O’Brien was aware of Louganis’ diagnosis, but believed that if the Olympic Committee knew that an athlete had HIV, he would not be allowed to compete. O’Brien also believed that the nature of diving presented no risk to other athletes. After the accident, Louganis was “stunned” and did not know what to do.
“It had been an incredibly well-kept secret,” Louganis told Walters. “You could put the whole competition in a state of alarm.” Louganis and his trainer decided that his accident posed no risk to others. The biggest concern, Louganis said, was when an Olympic doctor stitched up Louganis’ injuries without wearing gloves. But this doctor, James Puffer, later told the New York Times that he was not concerned, as studies had shown that transmission was extremely rare, even in the contact sport of football.
In the end, no one at the Games was affected and Louganis remains one of the best known divers in the world. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1993. He also (belatedly) appeared on a Wheaties cereal box in 2016.
With the help of effective drugs and treatments and the advancement of LGTBQ rights, decades later Louganis was healthy with undetectable levels of HIV and his outlook was transformed. “It’s amazing,” he said. Time in 2015, “I never dreamed that this day was possible.”
Regarding the 1988 crash, Louganis said he believed the attention he received during the crash, and then after his 1995 revelation, may have – on some level – helped to advance the acceptance of people living with HIV by Americans.
As he told Walters in 1995, “Some people don’t think AIDS has touched their lives. A lot of people saw me at the Olympics and were cheering me on. So all of these people cannot say that they have not been affected by AIDS.