Greg Louganis' painful moment of diving history at 1988 Olympics

This 11 September 1988 photo shows US diver Greg Louganis hitting the diving board during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. (PHOTO: AFP)
This 11 September 1988 photo shows US diver Greg Louganis hitting the diving board during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. (PHOTO: AFP)

By Chia Han Keong

The diving competition has long been one of the highlights of the Summer Olympics. Watching the divers fearlessly twisting and somersaulting into the pool metres below them is a visceral thrill for spectators and TV viewers alike.

In the 1980s, one diver’s name stood out – Greg Louganis. The American became the first male diver to win both the springboard and platform gold medals in two consecutive Olympics – the 1984 Los Angeles Games and the 1988 Seoul Games.

But by far, his two golds at the 1988 Olympics were the most dramatic among his many triumphs in the sport.

In the lead up to the Seoul Games, Louganis was already widely revered as one of the greatest divers ever. Earning the moniker “Mr Perfect”, he had destroyed the field at the 1984 Games, finishing more than 100 points ahead of his nearest rivals in the springboard event, and more than 70 points better than anyone in the platform competition.

However, he was carrying a secret which he had told only a trusted few: he had tested positive for HIV a few months before the Games.

In the 1980s, when AIDS was rampant and had no cure, to be diagnosed with HIV was to be stigmatised and ostracised by the world. Louganis had wanted to retire from the sport, but his coach convinced him not to, and eventually he was persuaded to carry on while secretly taking medication, which was smuggled into the Games.

Blood flowed from a cut

His first event in Seoul was his pet springboard competition. In 18 years of training and competing, Louganis had launched himself off a springboard about 200,000 times without ever once injuring himself.

But shockingly, after eight rounds of the springboard heats, Louganis left the board too straight while attempting a reverse two-and-a-half somersault in pike position and clattered his head on the board as he straightened out. Blood flowed from a cut on his head.

“I jumped off the board and heard this big clank,” he said later that day. “That’s my perception of the dive – I think my pride was hurt more than anything.”

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While Louganis still qualified for the final on the basis of his earlier dives, he was paralysed with fear. Would someone contract HIV from his injury? Would he have to divulge his secret to the team doctor? Would he be expelled because of his condition?

He decided to keep quiet about his HIV-positive status, only going open with the secret in 1995 after he retired from diving. Doctors have since said that the incident would have posed no risk to others, as any blood was diluted by the pool water and chlorine would have killed the virus.

Nonetheless, would Louganis be in a good state of mind to compete in the final the next day? Would he be able to perform that same dive again?

A pensive Louganis arrived at the competition venue extra early to try and calm himself down. Whatever he told himself, it worked – he led after all but one of the 11 rounds, his nerves only apparent when he repeated the dive that had troubled him the previous day. He still earned a high 76.25 points for that dive.

In the end, he easily won the springboard event by 25 points, leaving him one step away from a historic feat.

'Dive of Death'

The platform competition was just as memorable, albeit in a more traditional manner — Louganis was locked in a titanic battle for gold with China’s 14-year-old prodigy Xiong Ni.

Xiong – who would go on to win three diving golds at the 1996 and 2000 Games — had led by three points going into the final round, and produced a stunning dive for 82.56 points. Louganis had to literally perform a perfect dive to snatch the gold.

He chose Dive 307C – a three-and-a-half reverse somersault with tuck, which is one of the most difficult in the sport and one which only a few divers in the world could execute. Louganis was one of them, but he was haunted by being witness to the death of his Soviet Union rival Sergei Chalibashvili, who cracked his skull on the concrete platform while performing the dive at the 1983 World University Games.

It was dubbed the Dive of Death, yet Louganis showed no sign of fear as he nailed the dive to score 86.70 points. He won the gold medal by a margin of just 1.14 points.

He retired immediately after the Seoul Games, his place among the greats in the sport permanently sealed. He eventually came out during an Oprah Winfrey interview in 1995, and has since been a prominent gay rights activist. He also found a new interest in training dogs for dog obedience and ability competitions.

Now 61, he resides in Malibu in a house with a swimming pool, but no diving board. He does not feel the need to dive again — not after he finished his sporting career on such a dramatic and brilliant note.