Few athletes—even exceptional ones—succeed in a way that transcends their sport’s particular statistics to capture our imagination and impact our cultural conversation. That’s what diver Greg Louganis did at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul when, after hitting his head on the board in a high-dive accident that played on loop around the world, he came back on his next dive to win the Gold. Louganis became a social lightning rod when he came out as gay and HIV-positive, playing a role in the early ’90s dialogue around HIV that was dominated by homophobia and fear.
Today, he returns to the Olympics after a 20 year absence. A new documentary “Back On Board” will tell the story of his life, estrangement from the sport and return to diving as a mentor to Team USA. The documentary, filming in London now, is being funded through Kickstarter—visit their page here and take part in the story’s final chapter at the Olympics. Producer Will Sweeney talked to us about the project and the return of Greg Louganis.
All of us know the name Greg Louganis—even if we don’t know the details of his story, we recognize him as being one of those sports icons whose cultural import reaches beyond athletics. Can you give us a quick recap and talk about the importance of his return to the sport?
Greg Louganis had an incredible Olympic career. At only 16 years old, Louganis won a silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. He secured a spot on the 1980 Olympic Team as well, but could not compete in the Moscow Games due to the U.S. boycott in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Louganis came back stronger than ever in the 1984 and 1988 Games, winning gold medals in both the 10m Platform and the 3m Springboard events. He became the first man in 56 years to win two Gold Medals in diving by winning both the platform and springboard events. In 1988, competing against divers half his age, he became the first to win double Gold Medals for diving in two consecutive Olympics. Many people consider Greg Louganis to be the greatest diver of all time.
American diving has struggled to compete since Greg retired in 1988. The Chinese have come to dominate the sport since then, in part by studying and mimicking Greg’s style and training regimen. Greg has been working as Athlete Mentor with USA Diving since 2010. The next generation of divers are all incredibly excited to learn from Greg.
Why did it take so many years for him to return?
Since Greg retired from diving, he has not been involved with the Olympics or USA Diving in a official capacity. Greg says that he didn’t feel welcome in diving. Many suspect that homophobia played a role in why Greg was not sought out for his expertise. This is one topic that our documentary explores.
Two years ago, Steve Foley, the high performance director of USA diving, approached Greg about becoming a mentor for USA Diving. Greg credits Steve with making him feel welcome in the diving community.
Louganis captured our imagination in a bigger way than diving as a sport has on its own. How does his return impact the sport? Do you anticipate heightened attention at the Olympics?
When Greg Louganis hit his head on the diving board at the 1988 Seoul Games, it was an unforgettable moment of the Olympics. But when, despite his injury, he earned the highest single score for his next dive and went on to win the Gold medal, it was among the most incredible feats in sports history. So, yes, we do think that there will be heightened attention with his involvement. I think it is natural for people to compare the divers competing this year with Greg’s performances in past Olympics.
Part of what made Louganis’ story electric in the early 90s was his status as an HIV positive openly gay athlete. The world has changed a lot since then. Is it impactful to his story that his return coincides with a more tolerant and better-educated era?
Greg is a trailblazer in American history for being one of the first, and most prominent, openly gay athletes and for his HIV status. I would say that there has been progress but there is still a ways to go especially in places outside big cities in the US. Greg talks a lot about how sharing his life story in his book has helped others with what they’re going through. We know that the film will be another step in this direction. If more people know about Greg’s story, his courage and his survival, it will inspire people. Especially those in situations where they might not find tolerance and acceptance.
I know you guys are currently in production and funding through Kickstarter. When are you looking to release the film?
Yes, we are currently utilizing Kickstarter to help finance the production. It is a great way to get people engaged and it helps us finish the movie. We started shooting in May of 2011. We plan to finish shooting in the fall and hope to release it in early 2013.
See Kickstarter for more about “Back On Board.”