Thinking positive: HIV+ athletes

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Greg Louganis is regarded by most as one of the most spectacular divers to ever break the surface of the water.

Training for his moment of glory since he was a young boy, Louganis first burst on to the diving scene when he competed and medalled in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, at the age of 16.

Favoured to win gold in both the 3 and 10-metre events in 1980, Louganis would have to sit the competition out when the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics.

He returned four years later and became a national hero, capturing gold in both the springboard and tower events, a feat no diver had achieved in more than 50 years.

Louganis became a symbol of Olympic excellence and began training for the Seoul Olympics where most expeced he’s regain his title, but this time around, he was harbouring a secret.

As a gay athlete, Greg had yet to publicly come out of the closet, but his sexual status was only part of his secret.

Several months before the competition, Louganis had tested positive for the HIV virus and planned to abandon his Olympic run.

Doctors convinced him there would be no risk to his health or to those with whom he was competing and put him on what was a new drug at the time: AZT.

Louganis finished his training and was in top physical form for the event, but emotionally, according to interviews, the secret was weighing on his mind.

While preparing for a two-and-a-half pike on the springboard, the unthinkable happened. The Olympic hero slit his head open on the board and had to seek medical attention.

Knowing he was positive, Louganis felt he had a duty to tell the doctors about his status.

But friends advised he keep the secret from the public, and no one was informed until years later when he released the information is his book.

Louganis described the embarrassment and fear he felt after the dive his book Breaking the Surface: “I knew I had a responsibility to tell the doctor about my HIV status as he sewed my head up.”

Louganis went on to recapture both gold medals, but his ordeal brought an acknowledgement of HIV/AIDS to the sports arena.

The HIV/AIDS virus began to see widespread media coverage during the early ’80s, but very little was actually known about transmission from person to person.

Many sports organisations began to panic about what could cause transmission and enacted rules about blood and other bodily fluids on the court or field during game play.

In 1991, the public’s eyes were opened to the fact that HIV/AIDS was not just a gay disease when NBA basketball star “Magic” Earvin Johnson announced to the world that he too was HIV positive.

As one of the greatest players to ever take to the court, Magic became a powerful representative for the HIV positive community, but the NBA was not necessarily equipped for such a colossal revelation.

Despite many objections, Johnson was chosen for a spot on the US Olympic Dream team in 1992 and planned on participating in the games.

Fellow athletes, like tennis player Steffi Graff and the Spanish basketball team, showed their support for the great player and made public statements that HIV status was not something that athletes should be penalized or discriminated for.

There were rules put in place, however, that at the time seemed necessary to protect other athletes from infection.

This year, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban lead a campaign for the recall what was dubbed the “Magic Johnson rule” where if a player has blood on himself or his uniform, the game is stopped and the player is immediately removed from play and not allowed to continue the game.

Cuban suggested the rule was not only archaic, it was also was homophobic in its application.

According to Dr. Randy Eichner, MD. who wrote, ‘Contagious Infections in Competitive Sports’ for the Sports Science Exchange Journal, there are only four documented cases in the world in which a person became HIV-positive after large quantities of HIV-containing blood splashed into his eyes, mouth, or broken skin.

There is very little opportunity even in the most violent sport where this situation would even be feasible suggesting that the real risk of HIV transmission during sports activities is close to zero.

Yet, there is still discrimination when it comes to positive athletes.

In 1995, boxing champion Tommy Morrison was known as the “Great White Hope” when he captured the world heavyweight title. After a mandatory drug test set up by the boxing federation, Morrison was informed that he was in fact HIV positive and was banned from participating in the sport.

Years later he would make claims that his test was actually false positive and was eventually reinstated, but questions were raised about whether it was necessary to ban him in the first place?

It was a miracle on ice when figure skater Rudy Galindo captured the US men’s title and went on to claim a bronze medal at the World Championships.

He was the oldest man to win the title in more than 50 years, but his elegant style and grace catapulted him to the top of the field.

That same year, Galindo was diagnosed with HIV and chose to retire from eligible competition. His status did not, however, force him to leave the sport.

Galindo has been an outspoken activist for the gay and HIV positive community and still delights audiences on tours and exhibitions.

At the Gay Games, HIV positive athletes have thrived and are not judged by their status.

However, sometimes getting to the competition, especially in the United States, has been a problem.

Last year, help for HIV positive athletes came form an almost unlikely source when the White House announced on World AIDS Day that President Bush would issue an executive order allowing HIV-positive people to enter the country on standard short-term tourist or business visas for visits up to 60 days.

It was unclear, however, whether foreigners would still have to declare their HIV status, as they are asked to do now, but it did allow positive athletes to participate in United States-held events.

It is a step in the right direction, but there are still many prejudices when it comes to HIV status.

In 2004, Gymnast Matthew Cusick was fired from Cirque du Soleil after the organisation discovered he was positive. He was considered a ‘health risk’ and eventually sued the organisation with gay rights advocates at his side.

That April, he received a record-high $600,000 legal settlement under terms set by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The troupe also adopted a zero-tolerance discrimination policy and conducts annual anti-discrimination seminars for employees worldwide to help combat the problem.

With information and studies, we now know that HIV infection is not something that is easy to get.

You can’t get it from sweat or normal quantities of saliva. Even the chance of infection from shared needles is very low, and blood is seen as the only possible way that athletes could be infected.

There is no documented case of HIV transmission from athlete to athlete even in the bloodiest of sports.

From hockey and boxing to wrestling and football, although no one can say there is no chance of transmission, the powers that be have spoken: It is unjust to penalise and discriminate against HIV positive athletes.

Dylan Vox © 2007; All Rights Reserved.