Interview: Greg Louganis on gold medals, HIV and Matthew Mitcham

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He won his first Olympic medal at the age of 16. Eight years later he became the first man in 56 years to win two diving golds at the same Olympics. Four years after that, in Seoul, he added two more gold medals to his haul, despite famously hitting his head on the springboard during qualifying. He came out at the 1994 Gay Games. Laurence Watts meets Greg Louganis.

I meet Greg near his home in Malibu, California. Despite once dominating the sport of diving, he surprises me by being both affable and polite. He grew up in San Diego, 150 miles south of where we are seated. I want to begin the interview there. How did he get involved in diving?

“When I was very young I used to sneak into my sisters dance classes and copy what they did,” he tells me. “I had my first recital when I was three. Shortly after I got a partner and we started competing together. Our focus was mainly acrobatics. Eventually she took up gymnastics as well, so I decided to join her. I loved it.”

“Then I remember watching my first Olympics. My dad, being Greek, was crazy about them. I decided there and then that I wanted to compete at the Olympics as a gymnast. Not long after we got a pool built in our backyard and I started practicing gymnastics off the diving board. My mum freaked out! She thought I was going to kill myself, so she got me diving lessons.”

“For a while, between eight and twelve-years old, I did all three: diving, acrobatics and gymnastics. But back then gymnastics wasn’t done on sprung floors and the dancing took place on concrete. By the time I was twelve my doctor said I had to give up acrobatics and gymnastics because I had bad knees. From then on I concentrated on diving, still with a desire to one day make the Olympics. After a year, I was world champion for my age group. By the time I was sixteen I’d made the US Olympic team.”

It was at his first Olympics, at the age of sixteen, that Greg won a silver medal in the 10m-platform event. For many athletes an Olympic silver medal is the crowning achievement of their career. Not so for Louganis. His Olympic career was however substantially hindered four years later, when President Carter decided America would boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“At the time I was the diving team captain,” explains Greg, “so I was in all the meetings leading up to the games. As athletes, we wanted to go to Moscow and boycott the opening and closing ceremonies, apart from one representative who would carry the flag. Our voices were never heard.”

The boycott became a reality and in Louganis’ absence the USSR’s Alexander Portov won gold in the 3m-springboard event while East Germany’s Falk Hoffmann took gold in the 10m-platform competition. Nevertheless, Greg’s place at the top of his sport was confirmed two years later at the 1982 World Championships.

“It was funny because at the Worlds we were announced in reverse order,” he tells me. “I’d won the prelims and so was announced last. They introduced Portnov as ‘Olympic gold medallist 1980.’ He only got that title because I wasn’t there. So for the men’s 3m-springboard I felt I had something to prove. I turned it on and in the end I didn’t even have to do my last dive to win. I won by a lot.”

Louganis took home the World Championships 10m-platform gold as well. Two years later at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics he completed another clean sweep, picking up his first two Olympic gold medals. I ask him if he felt the same winning his second gold medal as he did when he won his first.

“For me, each one was totally different. The first time, I wasn’t really expecting it. I really wanted to prove myself on both springboard and 10m-platform. So when they were presenting me with the gold for springboard, I knew my job wasn’t done. I was busy thinking about the next day; what was I doing to prepare for the platform event? I enjoyed it, but I didn’t bask in it. Then when I won gold for platform, I lost it! I was the first man to win both events in 56 years.”

Louganis decided to bow out on a high and announced his retirement.

“I thought that was going to be it,” he tells me, “but it didn’t turn out that way. At the time, I was one of the proponents for trust funds to enable athletes to do commercial work while maintaining their eligibility for competitions as amateurs. I remember speaking to the President of USA Diving shortly after the Los Angeles Olympics. I asked him how the initiative was progressing and he told me that I was the only person in diving it affected and, of course, I was retiring. So I told him: “Fine, I’m not retiring. Do the work.” It took two more years to get it done and by then the Seoul Olympics were just two years away.”

By Seoul, Louganis had turned 28, old for the sport of diving. Some members of America’s Olympic diving squad were even calling him ‘grandpa’. Nevertheless, Greg beat the odds and won two more Olympic gold medals. He did so in breathtaking fashion. In the ninth round of preliminaries for the 3m-springboard event, in full view of the world’s media, Louganis hit his head on the springboard in midair, while attempting a reverse 2½ somersault pike. The world gasped in horror as he fell into the water. Still conscious, he managed to pull himself out of the pool.

“I’ve hit my head twice my entire career,” says Greg. “Seoul was the second time. My coach said I didn’t have to carry on, but from my point of view we’d worked too long and hard to get to where we were. I didn’t want to give up without a fight.”

The wound on the back of Louganis’ head was duly stitched up and he was back on the springboard just over half an hour later.

“The split second I hit the board I became the underdog,” he says. “The pressure was off of me. I didn’t even know if I was strong enough to compete. I just took it one dive at a time, one event at a time.”

Remarkably, come the 3m-springboard finals, he nailed all his dives and retained his Olympic title. His third Olympic gold was swiftly followed by his fourth when he bagged the 10m-platform event as well. He announced his retirement again, this time for good and turned his attention to another passion of his: acting.

It was while appearing in New York in the play ‘Jeffrey’ that Louganis was approached by Kile Ozier to record a message for the opening ceremony of 1994’s Gay Games. Louganis, who had long been out to his friends and family, decided it was time to make a public announcement and agreed.

“I’d never been open about my sexuality with the media before,” he tells me. “If I’d discussed my sexuality while diving I would have been known as ‘the gay diver’. The US media would have jumped on it. They love labels. I always wanted the focus to be on my diving, which is why I kept my sexuality to myself.”

Regardless, I put it to Greg that he would still have won the medals he did whether he’d been out or not.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I had a tough time making the teams. Although I usually won the titles, there were a lot of National Championships where I came in second. Diving is definitely one of the more objective sports because in competition they always knock off the highest and lowest scores, but homophobia ran pretty deep in the sport at the time.”

Louganis had another secret he wanted to be free of as well: six months before the 1988 Olympics he’d tested positive for HIV. He’d kept the diagnosis secret for a simple reason: the Korean authorities wouldn’t have let him in for the Olympics had they known his status. Greg knew this very well. He had wanted to share his Olympic experience with his friend, Ryan White, but White was denied a Korean visa on the grounds that he was HIV positive.

“By 1994 I was still paying cash for all of my meds. I even paid $80,000 out of my own pocket for a hospitalisation bill because I was worried that if my insurance company picked up the bill the tabloids would find out. I needed to tell people so I decided to write a book. A friend of mine introduced me to a writer called Eric Marcus and we started writing together. The first thing Eric asked me was what was going through my head when I hit my head in Seoul; it was my concern for other people; I didn’t want anyone touching my blood. No one was going to get HIV from a chlorinated pool, but I hadn’t told the doctor who sewed up my head about my status. He was the one I felt bad for.”

When Louganis’ HIV status was made public, Dr James Puffer, the US Olympic team physician who treated Louganis in Seoul, announced he had since tested negative for HIV. He also said he did not fault Greg for not revealing his HIV status at the time. Louganis traces his infection to one of two previous long-term relationships: his previous boyfriends Jim and Kevin. Both are now dead.

“My dad always wanted to blame Jim because he didn’t like him, but it could have been either one of them,” Greg tells me. “When word was spreading about a ‘gay cancer’ I thought I was in a stable relationship. I didn’t know I wasn’t. Jim and I ended up being diagnosed around the same time. When I told a friend that my doctor wanted to put me on AZT right away, he started sobbing. A lot of his friends on AZT had wasted away. It was pretty toxic. Nowadays they prescribe it in much lower doses than they did back then.”

Greg’s achievements are made all the more remarkable when one understands the challenges he faced, particularly in 1988. These days however, Greg’s name is being mentioned in the same breath as that of a much younger diver. In May 2008, shortly before the Beijing Olympics, Matthew Mitcham announced he was gay in an interview with Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald. When did Greg first hear about Matthew?

“The first I heard was friends asking me if I’d seen the story,” he answers. “By the time he reached Beijing he was constantly being asked about me and vice versa. It was easy for me: I was at home so I could just not answer the phone. He was at the Olympics. There was no avoiding it. I understand why people make the comparison, but it’s really not fair on either of us. He’s his own person and that’s something I really tried to convey to him when I met him recently. He’s doing great. He’s just got to believe in himself and not worry about the other stuff.”

Like me, Greg watched on television as Matthew won Olympic gold in Beijing’s 10m-platform event. I ask him if his own wins flashed back at that moment?

“It wasn’t a flashback,” he tells me. “I just knew what he was going through. It was unfortunate that NBC’s commentary here in America was so distracting. Matthew was the only openly gay athlete competing in Beijing, but NBC ignored the wider story and referred to Matthew’s partner as his ‘friend.’ I have to admit my appreciation of the moment was overshadowed by my annoyance with what appeared to be censorship by NBC.”