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� 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 be taken?
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 measures.
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 locus 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.