Life hasn’t always been easy for Greg Louganis. By all rights, it should have been, but only recently has the Olympic record-holder come to a full understanding that the obstacles he has had to overcome have made him stronger as an athlete and a man.
Louganis is the subject of “Back on Board,” a biographical documentary by Cheryl Furjanic airing Tuesday on HBO after making the rounds of the LGBT film festivals.
The film is pretty much a workmanlike effort, but “Back on Board” reminds us that long before Michael Sams, Robbie Roberts and Jason Collins, a shy young man who made almost every dive virtually balletic, told the world he was gay and, later, that he was HIV positive.
Having been adopted at an early age and then bullied at school for his skin color and soft-spoken demeanor, Louganis struggled to figure out where he fit in as a teenager. Diving was more a refuge, rather than an answer, until relatively recently, but it did bring him worldwide attention.
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He just missed out on a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, but was seen as a shoo-in for the 1980 games until the US and 64 other countries boycotted the Moscow games that year to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Four years later, Louganis finally got his gold and repeated in 1988 at the summer Olympics in Seoul. He remains the only male to sweep diving events in two consecutive Olympics.
The world should have been his to grab, but it wasn’t to be. While other Olympians like Mary Lou Retton were getting million-dollar endorsement deals, Louganis was all but ignored. As he says while surveying Wheaties boxes at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, he never got a cereal box, as so many others have, including Michael Phelps.
For all the serenity he exhibited standing on the edge of a diving board, Louganis’ life was anything but serene. Diving world insiders knew he was gay, but he wasn’t out. His two great coaches, Dr. Sammy Lee and Ron O’Brien, knew and were unwavering in their support, but while they could adjust Louganis’ form, they couldn’t keep him from making bad choices in his personal life.
One of those choices was Jim Babbitt, who was Louganis’ lover and business manager, although, at the time, he was quaintly labeled the diver’s roommate. At some point, Louganis finally realized he was the victim of being too trusting of Babbitt: He had only $2,000 to his name. The rest was tied up in trusts controlled by Babbitt. Louganis and Babbitt split up, but he still supported him until he died of AIDS related causes in 1989.
After Babbitt became ill, Louganis was tested for HIV. The result was positive. This all happened on the eve of Seoul, but Louganis was determined to compete so he kept the news to just his inner circle. O’Brien smuggled his HIV meds into South Korea because Louganis would have been barred from the country if his HIV status had been known.
And then, that moment. The whole world saw it – and heard it – when Louganis propelled himself into the air, somersaulted backwards and his head hit the end of the diving board with a smack.
Louganis was quickly stitched up, returned to the pool and won the gold in seemingly another moment of overcoming adversity.
But the moment would come back to haunt him when he came out as a gay man with HIV and drew criticism for potentially exposing others when he bled in the pool and was quickly stitched up by a doctor at poolside who wasn’t wearing latex gloves. That may also seem quaint today, given that chlorinated water would have neutralized the potential of infection, but it was a different time.
Having gone through so much in his life – including the possibility that he would lose his home to the bank – Louganis has emerged a stronger man, belatedly taking ownership of his own life.
The film relies too heavily on a manipulated structure involving the potential loss of the house, but in the end, it doesn’t detract from the empathy we experience toward Louganis. He was a hero for many in the late ‘80’s, but in a way, it has taken even more effort, and honesty, to become the hero in his own life that he is today.
“Back on Board: Greg Louganis” airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on HBO