Millions of us were shocked to learn last week that Olympic diving hero Greg Louganis has AIDS and that he was aware of his HIV-positive status at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. As the story broke, the overriding focus was on Greg's crisis of conscience after he split his head open on the 3-meter board in a preliminary round. Commentators have been asking: Shouldn't he have told someone, as a trace of his blood fanned into the diving pool, to protect the other divers from infection? Shouldn't he have told the doctor who stitched his scalp without using rubber gloves?
If you read his book, "Breaking the Surface," you will forgive Greg Louganis for his decision at that time. Magic Johnson's revelation did not come until 1991. And still, after Greg's admission, the U.S. Olympic Committee has announced that they will not require athletes to declare their HIV status. Greg acted with honor in the face of a situation that no one had ever even imagined before.
If you read his book, you will also forgive him what looks like an insincere marketing ploy. Breaking the news of his fatal illness by using Barbara Walters, the wide-ranging promos of ABC News, and the cover of People magazine to coincide with the publication of his autobiography is a brilliant marketing strategy. But Greg Louganis sick with AIDS is a tragedy, not an opportunity.
We are fascinated by Olympic champions and we jump at the chance to learn their secrets. In the case of Louganis, the secrets are staggering. And the athlete is much more than an Olympic champion--he is the greatest poet ever to soar off a diving board. I had the privilege of sitting poolside at three of Greg's Olympic performances. He was one of the special athletes who transform sport into art. He gave the illusion of floating, slowly and gently, while all the others plummeted and crashed through the surface.
We are talking about the god of his sport. As a matter of fact, his diving competitors called him God Louganis. Over a 12-year span, an unfathomably long period of time for any athlete to hold a peak, Louganis made four Olympic teams. From his silver medal as a lithe, graceful 16-year old in Montreal in 1976 to his double-gold dramatics in Seoul, Greg Louganis emerged and matured into a genius of fluid acrobatics and silent plunges.
With his co-author, Eric Marcus, Greg reveals many of the eccentricities of his sport as well as his own athletic idiosyncrasies. You learn that a body hurtles into the diving well off the 10-meter platform at a dangerous 32 miles per hour. You are surprised that Greg smoked from the age of 9 all the way through his Olympic days. You hear that many of the world-class divers, men and women, battle eating disorders, turning to laxatives and syrup of Ipecac (the potion that led to Karen Carpenter's death) to keep their body fat low. You may be moved to tears, as I was, in following the genesis of his inspirational friendship with his coach, Ron O'Brien.
But "Breaking the Surface" is much less the diary of an Olympic career than it is the gut-wrenching expose of an innocent, sensitive boy who has wound up today, at the age of 35, tragically unsure that he will reach his next birthday. There are elements of his story that are far from Olympian--elements that millions of Americans will identify as similar to their own everyday struggles. Greg's deep-seated childhood feelings of being unwanted and unloved have evidently stuck with him his whole life--first spurred by his learning he was adopted and then by his abusive father who called him faggot and sissy because he liked gymnastics instead of football and then by his schoolmates who beat him up after school, calling him nigger, referring to his Samoan heritage. His candor in depicting the low self-esteem he acted out in the most significant relationship in his life so far is razor-sharp.
Surely, millions of women will recognize themselves as Greg explains how he turned all his control, all his finances, all his love over to a man who belittled and berated him for six years. This man--whom Greg calls "Tom" in the book to protect Tom's family's privacy--was a homosexual prostitute, a fact that he hid from Greg. When Tom would go out late at night to turn tricks in Los Angeles, he would tuck Greg in, tell him he was going to take care of some paperwork, and say "Good night, my little dummy." Tom developed his first symptoms of AIDS a few months before Greg went to Seoul for the 1988 games. That was when Greg first received the devastating news that he, too, was infected with the HIV virus. You could say that this was the ultimate abuse Tom foisted upon his "little dummy."
If Greg's insights into his own life are not overly intellectual or deeply probing, they are brutally frank. He describes an afternoon when Tom raped him at knifepoint that made me wince. His difficult separation from Tom is terribly poignant in that he was torn between finally breaking away from a destructive situation and leaving the man he loved as he was sick and withering before his very eyes.
On learning of Tom's death in 1990, I asked Greg the question: "Are you OK? Have you been tested?" Except to a close inner circle, he said he was OK. He has gingerly guarded this dark secret for seven long years. As all the other athletes around the world were prepping for Seoul, they feared colds or flu or injuries. Greg was waking every four hours throughout each night to take his AZT medicine, hoping to slow the onslaught of AIDS symptoms. As other athletes were buoyed by spouses and loved ones, Greg's lover was dying. And as other Olympic champions stood on the gold medal platform and heard their national anthems, Greg Louganis now tells us that when he bowed his head for his final Olympic gold, he felt desperately alone and afraid.