America At Large: Greg Louganis story sheds light on a dark period
New documentary shows levels of anti-gay discrimination suffered by Olympic diver
Greg Louganis: The story of the Olympic diver is told in HBO’s documentary Back On Board: Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images.
Within 48 hours of American Pharoah becoming the first horse for 37 years to win racing’s Triple Crown back in June, Wheaties contacted his representatives about the possibility of putting his image on a cereal box. Nobody thought this odd. Whenever a sporting feat of note is achieved, it is almost expected the protagonist will quickly graduate from the arena to the country’s breakfast tables. So many hundreds of athletes and teams have received this accolade that it has come to enjoy a curious, exalted place in the sports culture.
From Johnny Weismuller and Jesse Owens in one era to Michael Jordan and Mary Lou Retton in another, gracing a package of whole wheat flakes so vividly captures a particular moment in time that vintage boxes are regarded as prized collectibles. Indeed, to run a finger along the list of those who’ve been associated with the product is to trip through decades of sports history and to immediately understand why the rarest editions are often the subject of online bidding wars.
Against that background, Greg Louganis has always appeared a notable omission from the roster. At the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, he won gold in both the platform and springboard competitions, the epic manner of his triumphs, replete with record-winning margins in one games, and a dramatic recovery from a head injury in another, briefly catapulted diving from the fringes to the mainstream.
His achievements and celebrity transcended his sport and made a commercial relationship with Wheaties seem inevitable. Except... “Never got a Wheaties box,” said Louganis in Back on Board, a new documentary about his life. “Their response was that I didn’t fit their wholesome demographics or whatever. Basically, being gay, or being rumoured that I was gay.”
If, in the conservative 1980s, the mere suggestion was, apparently, enough to scupper his chances, times have supposedly changed. After watching the documentary on HBO, a woman named Julie Sondgerath in Chicago decided to take action.
Especially moved by a scene where Louganis walks past a mural depicting all the past Olympic champions, including some of his own contemporaries, who endorsed the so-called “breakfast of champions”, Sondgerath started an online petition. She wants “to ask General Mills to right a wrong and put him on the Wheaties box”.
In a matter of weeks, the campaign has gained serious traction, bolstered by extensive media coverage and Louganis himself eloquently describing Sondgerath’s initiative to the New York Times as something done out of “love and compassion”. Whatever comes of the whole enterprise, it has already served a greater purpose, reminding everyone it’s not that long ago since gay athletes suffered, commercially and otherwise, for their sexuality. Aside from the financial bonanza denied him by missing out on this type of lucrative deal, it also fit a pattern of discrimination that marked his career.
At his first Olympics in Montreal, Louganis was a 16-year-old neophyte who found himself on the receiving end of homophobic abuse from his own team-mates. Some had created a “beat the fag club”, styling themselves as “fagbusters”, and refusing to room with the kid. More than a decade later, he arrived at the Seoul Olympics carrying an even heavier burden. During the build-up to those games, he’d tested HIV positive and was so fearful of news leaking about his condition and his homosexuality that his coach had to smuggle his medication into South Korea for him.
When he subsequently smacked his head off the 3-metre springboard doing a reverse somersault during preliminary dives, his primary concern was something far more significant than jeopardising his medal chances.
“I just wanted to hold the blood in,” said Louganis. “Just not anybody touch it.”
While there was no chance of passing on the virus in a chlorinated pool, Dr James Puffer of the US Olympic team wasn’t wearing gloves when he ran to treat the bleeding wound. And Louganis was too afraid of being exposed to tell him to stop. Stitched up and rattled, he was back on the board within half an hour and somehow recovered enough to unfurl his best dive of the session and 11 more the next day.
It would be the mid-1990s before he came out, told the full story of what happened in Seoul and phoned Puffer (who was not infected) to explain. By that time, Louganis had learned to live with a disease that was supposed to kill him, acted in off-Broadway plays, and, while promoting a tell-all memoir, forced a sometimes reluctant America to consider the plight of gay athletes. Through adversity, the dyslexic San Diego kid, who attempted suicide at age 12, appeared to have found a purposeful life far from the diving pool.
That impression faded over the ensuing decades as Louganis endured serious financial hardship. At one point, he had to sell some of his most prized swimsuits and medals in order to try save his home. These and other travails are chronicled in Back on Board; the documentary is an intimate portrait of a troubled icon’s struggles long after the cheering has stopped. At 55, Louganis has returned to the sport he made famous after nearly quarter of a century in exile, and married the love of his life. The portrait is of a man who has, after a fashion, found a measure of contentment. With or without Wheaties.