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.
“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.
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.
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.”