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Television John Doyle: Olympic diver Greg Louganis recalls scorn of being different

Greg Louganis seems to be a terribly nice man. He's gentle and courtly and smiles often, but not in that phony way that famous people flash automatic smiles at everyone they have to deal with.

Famous? Well, if you're under the age of 30, you might not even know who Louganis is.

More important, you might not know how important and illustrative his story is. In the 1980s, Louganis was one of the most famous athletes in he world.

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A four-time Olympic gold medalist in diving, he competed for the United States in 1976, 1984 and 1988, winning a total of five medals.

There would have been more, but the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow.

He should have been on cereal boxes and become a well-paid endorser of things, in the American way.

"Well, I really wasn't in it for the money, you know, so to speak," he said here the other day. "But it was an interesting journey. It became that."

He is gay, but hardly anyone knew it. There were rumours and the rumours almost ruined him, as happened back then.

Back on Board: Greg Louganis (HBO Canada, 10 p.m.) is a plainly told but powerful documentary about his life. Mainly it's about a twisted path in which circumstances were forced upon him and the poor decisions he made. Decisions that were rooted in fear – fear of the scorn he had felt.

As the doc makes clear, in other circumstances Louganis, this handsome, well-known young man, gloriously good and beautiful to watch in diving, would have had a clear path to fame and commercial reward. He seemed made for a classic American sports story. Adopted at eight months by a middle-class family in California, he had asthma and allergy problems. Gymnastics and swimming helped him deal with that.

At 16, he was competing at the Olympics. It was strange for him because at school he had been told he was lazy and eventually told that he had a learning disability. At last, it was diagnosed as dyslexia. By 1984, he was the best in the world at his sport – the footage of his dives, seen in the doc, are breathtaking – but the fame and money didn't come.

"There were so many stories at the '84 Olympic Games," he says now, being generous. "Incredible stories like Edwin Moses, all kinds of other stories, mine included, but the advertisers just rallied around Mary Lou Retton."

As we see in the documentary, in the context of the time, nobody was going to hire Greg Louganis for public relations or anything else. For years, some of his fellow athletes called him "fag" and pointedly declined to socialize with him. It was a kind of high-school bullying; the scorn of kids who hated the kid who was a bit different.

Today, in a society that seems to have fast-tracked gay rights, the situation of Louganis seems outlandish. Was he ever asked to do commentary, as many former athletes do, for an Olympics broadcaster?

Louganis smiles again. "No, they haven't asked. I did some pre-Olympic events coverage for NBC [which has owned the U.S. Olympics rights for years] around '92, and there's a story there I'd rather not get into."

In the silence that follows that, he says, hesitantly and quietly, "It was because I was HIV-positive, and somebody slipped out my HIV status, so …" He pauses again, hesitates and smiles again, before continuing, "I think it was more about fear of my health status when that was slipped to NBC. So, yeah, because in '92 people were still dying."

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In the documentary, the discovery of his HIV status is a key moment. His was diagnosed just before the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Only a handful of people among his friends and trainers knew. His HIV medications were smuggled into South Korea. He would have been barred from the country, never mind the Olympics, if his HIV status was known.

In Seoul, as the whole world watched, Louganis somersaulted during a dive and hit his head on the end of the diving board. He bled. The cut was hastily stitched.

Today, he is still tortured by the moment. See, back then, the idea of anyone being in contact with the blood of a HIV-positive person was terrifying. The chlorinated water in the pool would have neutralized the potential infection, made everyone safe, but Louganis finds it hard, now, to explain it all.

"I was diagnosed with HIV six months prior to the Olympics in 1988. And so honestly I believed those were my last competitive dives because we still viewed HIV/AIDS as a death sentence, and I never thought I'd see 30."

There's much more about the ravages of a secret gay existence in the HBO doc. He trusted only people who knew he was gay and was left almost penniless. He almost lost his house. He sold his belongings.

It's a stunning story, deeply sad, and a reminder that, not long ago, in our lifetime, when Greg Louganis was a gloriously good athlete, he felt scorn and was very afraid.

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These days, at the age of 55, he mentors divers and swimmers, does a bit of stage acting and will be doing TV commentary during the Rio Olympics next year. But for Globo TV in Brazil, not NBC. He smiles when he says that, without a hint of bitterness.

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