Greg Louganis was one of those rare athletes who come to define
their sports. His astonishing grace made millions of us see diving
as if for the first time: the human form as athletic symmetry in
flight. His body soared, tumbled, spun and twisted in seamless
perfection, like a seed God had created to be carried on the wind.
Then, too quickly, it entered the water with a satisfying gurgle,
and we wondered at what we had seen. He made us care for something
we didn't know we could care for.
Unfortunately, Louganis, the 1984 and '88 Olympic diving double
gold medalist, now may be best remembered for the only dive most
of us ever saw him miss (right). When Louganis, in an interview
with ABC's Barbara Walters that was timed to promote the
publication of his autobiography, said last week that he has AIDS,
the media immediately focused not on Louganis's athletic
achievements but on that failed reverse 2 1/2 pike in the '88
Summer Games. The TV replay of his head smacking the board was
sensational the day it happened; it became controversial and
macabre after we learned the blood that had trickled into the
Olympic pool as a result of the accident contained HIV, the virus
that causes AIDS.
Questions arose, many of which Louganis admitted having asked
himself for years. Should he have competed in the Olympics knowing
he was HIV-positive? Why, after cutting his head on the diving
board, didn't he inform Jim Puffer, a U.S. team doctor, of his
condition before Puffer stitched him up without wearing gloves?
Didn't the other competitors have a right to know of Louganis's
condition? Was it dangerous for them to dive into the pool after
he had bled into the water? Should the International Olympic
Committee now test all athletes for HIV, so a potential tragedy
might be averted?
Fair questions, to be sure. But misleading in that they
distract us from the essential message we should take away from
the unfolding tragedy of this great Olympian. Louganis didn't
contract AIDS or spread the virus through athletic competition
or because of some breakdown in IOC policy. Louganis has the
disease because he didn't practice safe sex. That's the message
for anyone who chooses to eschew abstinence -- and it can't be
repeated often enough. At some point in his past, possibly at
many points, Louganis chose to engage in unprotected sex, and it
will probably cost him his life.
When Magic Johnson made his shocking revelation in 1991 that he
was retiring from basketball because he was HIV-positive, his
message, stark and clear, was that AIDS could be spread through
heterosexual as well as homosexual sex. Johnson preached to his
fellow athletes and legions of well- wishers to practice safe sex.
It was an important message for young people to hear.
It was only later, when Johnson participated in the 1992
Olympics and attempted an NBA comeback, that the athletic
implications became controversial. Fellow basketball players
wondered aloud: Should an athlete be allowed to compete if he
has the AIDS virus? Could HIV-positive blood from a small
scratch infect another player? What sorts of precautions should
Changes were instituted at all levels of sport to address these
fears: Doctors and trainers now wear latex gloves when treating
athletes; players who begin to bleed during a competition are
immediately removed from the game and cannot return until the
wound is cleaned and bandaged; and all blood is treated as
potentially contaminated blood. These are prudent and sensible
And despite the concerns expressed following Louganis's
revelations, there's no evidence that additional precautions are
needed. The likelihood of one athlete's spreading the AIDS virus
to another athlete during competition is so remote as to be
infinitesimal. In fact, only one athlete, a recreational soccer
player in Italy, is even suspected of having been infected with
HIV during a match (he knocked heads with another player who
turned out to be HIV-positive). But even that case was disputed
because doctors couldn't rule out other risk factors.
The IOC was correct last week in restating its position not to
require athletes to undergo a blood test for HIV. Olympic athletes
who have tested positive will continue to be allowed to compete,
provided they have their physician's approval that they are
healthy enough to do so. Louganis was under no obligation to
divulge his condition in 1988, nor were there public health
reasons for him to have revealed it.
So let's return the focus on Louganis to where it should be. He
was unparalleled as an athlete. He carried himself with grace
and dignity his entire competitive career. He was, and is,
beloved by the American public. He developed AIDS, not because
he was an athlete, not because he was homosexual, but because he
didn't practice safe sex. That's the message he should deliver
as he travels the country promoting his book.