Public Glory, Secret Agony

In December 1993, greg louganis was shuttling between Jersey City, N.J., and New York, where he was performing in an off-Broadway play. He was long retired as an Olympic diver -- the best diver of all time -- and had been consideringan autobiography. Friends discouraged it, worried about the effect on any future jobs and on his intensely private nature. But he went ahead and sat down for the first of 60 hours with coauthor Eric Marcus at the writer's Manhattan apartment. Seated in a beige chair, looking out a window across Central Park, Louganis began telling the story he had contained for five years. "Do you remember my ex-lover who I told you about?" he asked Marcus. "He died of AIDS." After a long pause, tears streamed from Louganis's eyes. "And I'm HIV-positive."

Last week the world got to hear those words, too, and Greg Louganis became yet another tragic intersection of celebrity and AIDS -- and a troubling tale of a young gay man competing in big-time sports. "For me, this book means no more secrets," he writes in "Breaking the Surface," which is published this week.

Sweetly shy as always, Louganis told his secrets last week on "20/20" to the ever-lachrymose Barbara Walters, the first step in a massive publicity swing. Only six months before the 1988 Olympics in South Korea, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Concerned, but fearful of the chaos it would set off, he opted not to tell Olympic officials -- or even the doctor who stitched him up in Seoul after he hit his head on a diving board and shed blood. Despite the injury and the unrelenting personal anguish, he won two gold medals with some of the best dives of his life. Louganis, 35, said he has since developed full-blown AIDS. His hair graying, and his chiseled diving body less Adonis-like, Louganis told Walters why he went public: "I wanted my story to motivate those people who are HIV-positive to be responsible and also to understand that life isn't over yet, that HIV and AIDS is not a death sentence."

The book did something else, too. It renewed debate about whether athletes should come forward if they have the disease -- or even be allowed to compete (page 52). That debate invoked the names of two mythic sports figures: Magic Johnson, who retired from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1991 because of HIV, and Arthur Ashe, the tennis star who died of AIDS-related disease in 1993. Unlike those two, Louganis is gay, which he publicly disclosed last year, making him the most prominent athlete to admit to catching the disease by homosexual behavior. Some people last week criticized him for hiding his health condition from Olympic officials, a point worth noting only as far as not informing the doctor. But U.S. officials defended Louganis, saying he was under no obligation to disclose his disease. They also cited the astronomical odds against infecting others (page 51). AIDS advocates also applauded Louganis for going public now, with the infection rate climbing again for young gay men. "I imagine some people will think I was irresponsible and others may think I was heroic," he writes. "All I know is, at times of crisis like that, you just do what you think is best."

The book set off the requisite media frenzy, orchestrated by publisher Random House. People and Out magazine, a gay publication, had purchased rights to excerpts, but the New York Daily News and the Associated Press scooped them with excerpts a few days earlier. Random House also ordered copies of the book held back until this week, but they surfaced anyway in some bookstores. (Newsweek bought one.) The disclosure didn't match the impact of Magic Johnson's revelation. Nor did it shock Louganis's gay friends, particularly in the hills of Malibu, Calif., where he lives with five Great Danes.

Even before his announcement that he was a homosexual at the Gay Games in New York last summer, Louganis was living an openly gay life. In 1993 he played the role of an AIDS-infected chorus boy in "Jeffrey," a show about life in the age of AIDS. Such choices did not help him land the lucrative commercial endorsements that other world-famous athletes take for granted. Many people, Louganis among them, believe his gay reputation helped scare away endorsements; his only one is for Speedo swimsuits and other products, which the company renewed even after he told officials he had AIDS. "If he had been perceived as an overtly heterosexual womanizer, he would have done remarkably well," Seth Matlins, a vice president at ProServ, which represents top athletes, told The Advocate, a gay publication.

It's little wonder that Louganis took up diving so obsessively at the age of 9; it was the perfect vehicle to shield a painful upbringing. In his memoir, Louganis writes in detail of a childhood that left him devoid of self-confidence. His parents were unmarried teens; his father a Samoan and his mother of Northern European stock. They gave him up for adoption soon after birth. After nine months in a foster home, he was adopted by a family living near San Diego. He describes his alcoholic, adoptive father as both neglectful and overbearing. When he was 11, he says, his father beat him with a belt when he refused to dive off a nonregulation springboard. "He hit me across my backside and legs until it burned," he wrote. His father died in 1991.

He also recounts how schoolmates called him "nigger" because of his dark skin, "sissy" because of his interest in acrobatics and "retarded" because of dyslexia, which he didn't know he had until college. Depressed as an adolescent, and a heavy drug user, he attempted suicide when he was 12, slicing his wrists. "Afterward, I was even more angry and depressed, because I didn't see any way out," he writes.

Later, he got involved in a stormy six-year relationship with a man -- described only as Tom in the book -- who Louganis said repeatedly abused him, including raping him at knifepoint in 1983. According to Louganis, Tom angrily accused him of cheating, and grabbed a kitchen knife. "Tom grabbed me from behind, held the knife to my neck and forced me facedown onto the bed," Louganis wrote. "Then he raped me." In 1989, Louganis obtained a restraining order against the man, identified in court papers as R. James Babbitt, to keep away from him. Babbitt died of AIDS in 1990.

Looking back, Louganis's unprecedented feat at the 1988 Olympics in South Korea becomes all the more remarkable, and the stuff of yet-to-be-made, made-for-TV movies. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles he had won two gold medals -- in platform and springboard diving -- the first man to do so since 1928. Now, at 28, he was going to Seoul older and a bit thicker and facing Chinese divers half his age. But, as he wrote, he had another burden. In March 1988, while in training for the national championships, Louganis's lover -- the same Tom -- told him he was diagnosed with AIDS. The same day, Louganis had blood drawn for an HIV test. When his doctor told him it was positive, "all I could do was nod my head," Louganis writes, "because by this time, I could hardly hear anything except the pounding of my heart."

He began treatment with the drug AZT, taking the powerful doses every four hours. He told his coach, Ron O'Brien, and wrestled with telling the Olympic committee. "Dealing with HIV was really difficult for me because I felt like, God, the U.S. Olympic Committee needs to know this," he said on "20/20." But he decided against it, concluding that swimming was anything but a contact sport.

What he didn't count on was making contact with the diving board. On a dive in the preliminary springboard competition -- a reverse two-and-a-half pike -- Louganis hit his head. After he landed in the pool, he said he was "paralyzed with fear" that blood would seep into the water. "I just held my head . . . I didn't know if I was cut or not, but I just wanted to hold the blood in," he told Walters. At poolside, James Puffer, an Olympic physician, sewed four stitches through the two-inch cut without wearing gloves. "So many things went through my mind," Louganis wrote. "Did I get any blood in the pool? . . . Could I have infected Ron? Then I worried about Dr. Puffer, who wasn't wearing gloves . . . All I could do was cry."

Louganis went on to win both the platform and springboard gold medals, the first time that had been done in consecutive Olympics. But he didn't tell Puffer about his illness until last year,assuming wrongly, he conceded, that the physician would have routinely been tested for AIDS. Puffer tested negative, and last week said he had no quarrel with Louganis because the chance of infection was so tiny.

Not every Olympic official agreed. The chairman of the Seoul Olympic organizing committee, Park Seh Jik, said Louganis should not have competed in the final round of the Olympics, adding that it wasn't "morally right." But the International Olympic Committee said Louganis wasn't obligated to disclose his condition. Several gay athletes predicted chaos if Louganis had spoken out. "This is not like disclosing that you've got a cold," said Jim Ballard, a onetime nationally ranked gay swimmer. "The Tonya Harding story would have paled by comparison."

He seems right about that. The world of sports is hardly a nurturing environment for those with alternative lifestyles. Louganis said that he had trouble finding someone to room with him at the Olympics, apparently because many thought he was gay. "You hear routine gay-bashing every day," said Bruce Hayes, a gay swimmer who won a gold medal in 1984. "It doesn't make you think you will be received warmly if you come out." Some critics have suggested Louganis might have been a little less commercial, a little less PR-conscious, in his coming out. Maybe so. But years of silence can make a fellow want to cry out, in pain, and in hope, too.