San Francisco — Life hasn't always been as 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 Rogers and Jason Collins, a shy young man who made almost every dive virtually balletic told the world that he was gay and, later, that he was HIV positive.
Louganis just missed out on a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, but he was seen as a shoo-in for the 1980 games until the United States and 64 other countries boycotted the Moscow games that year to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
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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.
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. Despite coming to recognize Babbitt's dishonesty, Louganis 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. 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.
The film relies too heavily on a manipulated structure, but in the end, it doesn't detract from the empathy we experience toward Louganis. He was a hero for many in the late 1980s, but in a way, it has taken even more effort, and honesty, to become the hero in his own life that he is today.