Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Updated 2001.11.02

You are here: > Writing > Sports articles > The lasting lessons of Louganis

The lasting lessons of Louganis

First published 1995

Greg Louganis has now passed into a realm of celebrity shared by exactly one other person – Magic Johnson. Both are situated in a kind of media penalty box in which all their future actions (and many from the past) are seen through the prism of HIV. What is it about the American psyche that hesitates to discuss, say, the psychosexual link between Mike Tyson’s rape conviction and the sanctioned brutality and the corruption of pro boxing while saddling Johnson and Louganis with the taint of AIDS for the rest of their lives?

In interpreting Louganis, the most famous gay athlete ever, the mainstream media have proven themselves incapable of independent, rational thought; not only has this resulted in stories that build on the errant precepts of previous stories until a sort of gestalt of misrepresentation is achieved, but pressing issues of identity and the excesses of the elite-sport machine were ignored altogether – and what Louganis means for the future of gays in sport remained unaddressed.

Blood in the pool

The most famous episode in Louganis’s life is not his unprecedented medal haul or his domination of diving for more than a decade; rather, it is his accident at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in which he whacked his head on the diving board while trying to execute a difficult dive. He cut open his scalp and bled into the pool a wee bit. The attending doctor, Jim Puffer, treated and sutured the wound without wearing gloves. Louganis knew he was HIV-positive at the time and thus, sports pundits told us ad nauseam in February and March when Louganis came out of various closets, the diver had placed Puffer in an unconscionable degree of risk. What if Puffer had become infected by Louganis’s tainted blood?

But the proof of the (blood) pudding is in the taste, and the fact that Puffer did not seroconvert (having tested negative ever since) should have squelched the insidious, repetitive, sensationalistic, ignorant post-facto speculation. But in fact, similar questions come up with tedious regularity in virtually every discourse on AIDS and sports, whether in the gutter tabloids or in magazines that should know better, like Poz, which outed a boxer as HIV-positive in its June/July issue. Elsewhere, HIV-positive basketball and soccer players and wrestlers have been alleged to pose a risk to teammates and opponents, presumably by infecting them when skin breaks open accidentally and cuts come in contact.

But that “vector” of transmission is spectacularly unlikely. Cuts bleed outward; despite the dozens of Hollywood movies (like Natural Born Killers) in which characters cut their palms and press the wounds together to form a blood bond, it would likely take several minutes of continuous contact before enough of person A’s blood could enter person B’s body to cause infection, which even then is but a possibility, not a certainty. That’s presuming person A is HIV-positive in the first place, and that person B isn’t already. (Louganis, by the way, later had an audience with Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who set him straight on the real odds, an anecdote recounted in his memoir Breaking the Surface.) Far more likely methods of infecting an athlete are unsafe sex and dirty needles, both of which are hardly unheard of among jocks.

In reality, the real risk in diving is diving. In 1983, Sergei Shalibashvili of the Soviet Union was killed in a competition dive in Edmonton, Alberta; Nathan Meade of Australia was killed in a training accident in 1987. No divers have died of HIV infection directly traceable to diving activities. At the moment of Louganis’s accident, medical personnel and commentators had their priorities right – Louganis’s health and safety then and there. But now we’re expected to overlook the fact that Louganis could have been killed or paralyzed or suffered a permanent disabling brain injury in favour of obsessing over a ludicrously unlikely case of HIV transmission to another person.

Louganis’s case shares features with those of Magic Johnson (remember the Australian Olympic team’s early refusal to play against him?), Ruben Palacio and other HIV-positive boxers (who are deemed a real threat to their opponents while their fists are not), and an unnamed woman who died of AIDS complications in 1991 after allegedly having sex with 50 NHL players. In those instances, the possibility of infecting other people was seen as more pressing than the actual health needs of the HIV-positive persons in question. In Louganis’s case, his future health should be of far greater interest than the theory that he might have infected Puffer, which he did not do.

Greg as adult child

Little attention seems to have been directed at what is arguably a case of arrested development on the part of Louganis, and how it relates to growing up in sports and to his life as a gay man. The diver’s fondness for teddy bears (true even today, as an adult – his March 1995 People profile featured Louganis posing with four of the stuffed toys) may come across as a harmless, even charming fillip, but those cuddly reminders of a child’s mythical world free of pain, death, injury, maturation, and danger are deeply symbolic.

Like many kids with an athletic gift, Louganis found himself the centre of attention and the bearer of tremendous responsibility early on, just when kids without such talents are trying to figure out how to make friends at school, or at least how not to get picked on. (And the latter certainly happened to Louganis, as Breaking the Surface describes – the dyslexic, dark-skinned gymnast/diver/dancer was called a retard, a nigger, a sissy, and a faggot.)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that elite sports rob kids of normal childhoods while offering them experiences few children have – travel, acclaim, even money – that arguably do not compensate for the loss of normalcy. But we can’t overlook the fact that Louganis was a gay kid who, like many others, felt confusion and shame over his gayness. But he was also an exceedingly famous athlete, one who elicited much love from the general public. We could all claim Louganis as our own, whether we were attracted to his poise, to his raw, incontestible skill, to his ability to win medals for the great United States and keep the godless commies in their place, or to his remarkably lean and beautiful body, exposed to the world in every dive. Louganis, like so many other amateur athletes thrust into the limelight, was our baby.

His desire to stay in the closet is understandable for the era, but it left Louganis prey to blackmail (from his lover/manager Jim Babbitt, who sexually and verbally abused Louganis, including issuing threats to out him) and mired in what one might view as a sexless juvenile state until he finally, unequivocally came out of the closet at the Gay Games in 1994.

That decision, reached after years of therapy and a string of unfulfilling or abusive relationships (and a suggestive off-Broadway role as a gay man with AIDS in Jeffrey), should have set Louganis on a more adult course, one that could have placed his tough yet-frail persona in perspective and allowed him to adapt to a new role as an out gay adult. (If politicians and Marines can do it, why not a man who could hit his head against a diving board and come back to win a medal the same day?) Popular-press commentary could have focused on his slow, overdue maturation.

But his decision to come out as HIV positive early this year [1995] forestalled that possibility forever; seropositivity gave dumb-arse sportswriters an easy angle on the diver they always knew was queer (so hey, who’s surprised that he’s got AIDS?) and the general public another reason to feel sorry for the doomed icon, to take Greg under their wing – to treat him, in effect, like a baby. It may sound cruel, but Louganis needs to break away from the teddy bears and the overweening public love and the treacle; he needs to come out as an adult, not just as gay or HIV-positive.

Homoeroticism and its complexes

Louganis was literally idolized for his beauty, “grace” (codeword alert!), and his bod, though of course that last was rarely discussed in the press. (Notable exception: A 1984 Time story, which waxed eloquently over his musculature and beauty.) Yet he harbors feelings of physical inferiority to this day; there’s tremendous friction between Louganis’s image and the way he sees himself.

In an Advocate interview (and in passing in his book), Louganis remarked that even today he is not happy with his body: “I’m working on this, but I still see this chubby little kid with a wide ethnic nose and no pecs. Whenever I see somebody with pecs, I go, ‘I hate him. He has pecs’… Going to the gym, I’d always get real self-conscious because there are these guys there with incredible bodies. I never felt like I matched up.”

If you accept that sports are an arena in which sexuality’s voice can be heard – sometimes whispering, other times shouting – then Louganis’s former status as a closeted gay man in a show-your-body sport could be expected to create psychic scars. Here Louganis’s experience fits that of other gay boys like a derrière in a Speedo: Though some of us are as athletic as our straight brothers, neighbours, and classmates and have had no sports-related traumas whatsoever, it’s far more common to find young gay boys who led bookish lives and were always picked last (or nearly so) on gym-class teams. In fact, we hated gym class. But gym class (and the sports pages and sports shows on TV) were where we found the sexiest, best-looking, best-built, manliest males – in the very milieu from which we felt the most alienated. And because we were so bad at sports and craved the other boys so very much, we hated our spindly, inadequate, undesirable bodies.

It’s not surprising that Louganis developed an inferiority complex about his looks. (Being “ethnic” didn’t help.) As such, Louganis is the strongest example yet of the damage done by what could be called the sports closet, and as such, Louganis is an unwitting anti–role model for the future of gay youth in sports.

It has to be possible to restructure phys-ed classes so the gay kids (let’s not pretend gym teachers can’t spot them!) won’t feel second- or third-class; simply eliminating those embarrassing, sexually-charged shirts-vs.-skins games would help enormously. The next step is politically and psychologically dicey – admitting that even the mildest forms of sexual attraction are at play in sports, particularly in “exposed” events like diving, swimming, boxing, and wrestling.

Gay kids are coming out younger and younger these days, and in my experience they seem to have their shit together far earlier than us old-timers, with less angst and ostracism. Giving those kids some form of encouragement that they can partake in sports and be out and be considered attractive and be attracted to others (even from afar, even chastely, even privately, even silently) will reduce the number of future Louganises: Queer jocks who were never given permission to love themselves, their sports, and others. We need more and more out gay athletes, yes, but some of them need to be sexy out queer athletes, athletes unafraid to be as open as the sky is wide and to compete in any kind of sport – including those where sexuality is strongly manifest, like sports in which the body is on glorious display.

I am not even remotely suggesting that Louganis has any kind of personality flaw that caused his feelings of inferiority. On the contrary, we couldn’t expect much more from the system he grew up in; Louganis is an understandable product of that system, and he will continue to have the staunch support of gays in sports and the general public (even if the latter’s support is paternalistic). But we can only hope that Louganis goes down in history as the last of his kind – the last elite athlete to be closeted, abused, tormented and ashamed – and remembered for accident, tribulation and sickness rather than achievement, perseverance, strength, and character.

Journalism, articles, book Graphic and industrial design Media access (captioning, Web accessibility, etc.)