Learning from Greg Louganis

Sport is not always about fun. Sometimes, it is about fear. It is about mastery over that fear, that a few sportsmen are able to do, and in the process they are labeled as greats.

Fewer still, go on and transcend the boundary set by their sport, and touch lives of people, millions who look at them with awe. If you were a kid watching Seoul Olympics 1988, you could not have missed Greg Louganis, for the sheer determination shown by him to win twin gold in diving, for USA.

Yours truly, watching the sport, was stunned to see him hit his head on the diving board, coming out of pool holding his head. As a child, you’re not used to seeing sportsmen on TV suffering concussion. As the live audience around the pool covered their mouth in amazement, I said to myself, “He’s not going to return to the pool ever again.”

Greg Louganis just before hitting his head on the Springboard in 1988 Olympics. Photo Source: Internet

To my pleasant surprise, he did and won the gold. The awe during childhood remained, registered permanently in the memory.

It was Olympics making a return to Asia in after 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and people across the globe wanted to see if South Korea could match the standards set by Western countries in hosting the event. The sport enthusiasts waited for Carl Lewis to shine, winning gold medal in 100 meters and other events he participated in. After all, he had conquered the track and field four years ago. Some questioned if Ben Johnson could beat him again, having done so in 1985 already. Despite the drug test saga of Ben – which still haunts sport – and triumph of King Carl, the Olympic belonged to the 5 foot 9 – Louganis, for braving the hit and coming out on top, on the honor board.

Little did we know then that he was an HIV-positive, even when he participated in Olympics.

“In those days, learning that you are HIV was like a death sentence, with a lot of stigma attached to it,” he said, in a recent interview with yours truly on Kantipur TV, as he came to Nepal as a guest in the first South Asian LGBTI Games (Talk about meeting your childhood hero and being able to touch the Olympic Gold medal). He was on diagnosed with HIV six months before the Olympics and was on antiretroviral drug, taking it every four hours round the clock. “We smuggled my medicines, saying it was my coach’s. We had a plan that if the medicine was not allowed inside South Korea, my coach would return,” he reminisced. Fear, perhaps not. Dedication to the sport, perhaps yes…

Transcending the boundary of sports came about when he announced almost towards the mid-90s, of being a gay – one of the first sportsmen to openly declare it – and an HIV-positive, in his autobiography ‘Breaking the Surface’. Apparently, his co-author, Eric Marcus was told to finish the book within a year, as publishers feared Louganis might die by then (without Greg’s knowledge then, as he told me). Those were the days when HIV was not a word used easily in public sphere. It was a hush-hush word and you would try to hide it, as much as possible. The announcement was not taken too easily in the sporting arena. Many cried foul, saying they were not told about it, when they competed with Louganis.

At the same time, there were several people who were happy, to learn that HIV was not the end of life. It was merely a condition, like Diabetes and Hypertension, and you could live with it. In a single stroke, Greg Louganis had demystified HIV. He had made several sportsmen and women, and common people along with it, aware that life goes on, even after being infected.

Looking more Nepali than the Nepali. Yours Truly with Greg Louganis, after interview at Kantipur TV. Photo: Jeevan Karki

Sports have no meaning if emotions are not attached to it. It would merely be robotic exercise, if passion is taken away. While winning the gold medal after hitting head on the springboard, Louganis showed this. And while declaring about being gay and HIV-positive – and championing the issues of people like him – he went a step further. He showed what sport or sportsmen can do to life. And for that, yours truly would remain his fan, forever.

(This write-up appeared in yours truly’s weekly column in The Kathmandu Post – OFFSIDE – on 20th October, 2012)

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