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Diving into the

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am
 

The atmosphere at the London Olympics will be unlike anything the 10,343 athletes could ever have imagined.

With the eyes of a global audience upon them, the experience of competing on the world's greatest stage will be an unbelievable 'high'.

But for one Olympic legend, it's the devastating 'low' that could hit them afterwards that concerns him.

Greg Louganis was the poster boy of diving in the 1980s and won the springboard and platform golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

He went on to win them both again in Seoul in 1988, despite suffering concussion when he hit his head on the springboard during the preliminary rounds.

But it was only later that fans became aware of the traumas he faced - driving him to two suicide attempts - as he achieved his phenomenal success.

'It is true that nothing can prepare you for the attention you receive,' said Louganis, now 52, during a visit to Hong Kong with Gao Min , China's diving gold medallist in the Seoul and 1992 Barcelona Olympics, for a series of promotional talks.

'And I guess what a lot of people forget when they see that success is everything that has gone on, or is going on, behind it.

'I know that certainly was the case with me. What people saw up there on the platform wasn't really the full story. Actually, it was nowhere near the full story.'

These days, Louganis is involved in mentoring America's young divers, but not just about the physical and technical demands of the sport.

He also prepares them for everything that comes with it, from the hiring of agents, to the effect fame might have on their personal lives and how they will cope when all the attention dies away.

The role seems to be a perfect fit for Louganis. The athlete was famed for his ice-cool demeanour. So cool, in fact, the actor Michael Fassbender said this week Louganis was the role model for the robot character David he plays in the movie Prometheus.

But the reality was a lot different.

'After the '76 [Montreal] Olympics, I suffered from depression and I tried to commit suicide at 17,' he recalled.

'It was just very confusing to me. I was an Olympic silver medallist [in the 10-metre platform event] and I thought I was a failure while everyone else was celebrating me.

'I thought later in life, when I had once again tried to kill myself, that instead of trying to 'off' myself, why not just try to work out why I am here. That marked a real change for me.'

When Louganis published his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, in 1988 he revealed to the world a life that had previously been shown only to close friends and to family, one that included not only his suicide attempts and bouts of depression, but also the fact that he was gay and his battle with HIV.

'I was 28 when I retired and I had given sport my life - 20 years,' he said. 'I had a lot of things to deal with when I retired after the '88 Games.

'There was a relationship that was abusive, being HIV positive and dealing with that, plus my dad was diagnosed with cancer. There was just a lot of stuff that I needed to attend to.'

That's why he has been trying to explain to America's current crop of Olympians the need to prepare for when all the fanfare fades away.

'I'm working with both the athletes and the coaches and we've been doing this for about a year,' said the five-time world champion.

'But what I am most concerned about is the after-care, because competing in the Olympics is a super high 'high'. And after the high 'highs' there are usually low 'lows'. There's also the transition from being on the world stage to what do you do next.'

Like most Olympic athletes, Louganis's talents were recognised at an early age, though he ended up diving more by fate than design.

'It was my dream to make the Olympic team in gymnastics,' he explained. 'Between the ages of nine and 12, I was doing gymnastics, acrobatics and diving, but my knees were giving me a hard time.

'My doctor told me to give up everything. But with diving, I just never thought I was good enough.

'At that time, if you were one of the best gymnasts in the country it didn't mean you were one of the best gymnasts in the world. But if you were one of the best divers in the US, at that time, you were one of the best divers in the world.'

Despite the fact that he had performed exceptionally as a junior, Louganis still had doubts about his own ability when he lined up against the legendary Italian Klaus Dibiasi at the Montreal Games and took silver.

'I just kind of found myself at the Olympics in '76,' he says. 'I was training for them, but I don't know that I was really ready for it.

'I didn't feel like I truly belonged until my second World Championships in Ecuador in 1982.

'My teammates in '76 had convinced me that it was a fluke that I had made the team and I shouldn't really be on it. So I kind of had the notion all the way through - even though I had a World Championship under my belt - that I really didn't think that I truly belonged on the world stage.'

If there were any doubts about his ability before the World Championships in '82, they were blown away when Louganis became the first diver in history to be awarded perfect 10s from all seven judges as he picked up the 3 metre springboard and 10 metre platform titles.

'When you are at that level you have to feel like you belong on that stage,' he says. 'There's plenty of talent, of course, but it can all come down to who is going to perform on that day. Confidence helps, and that's what I tell the athletes I am working with now.' Louganis cemented his legend at the Games in Los Angeles and Seoul, becoming the only male diver to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the springboard and platform diving events.

But he feels the real impact he made was in revealing all his troubles when he told the full story of his life.

'It was such a cathartic experience,' Louganis said of his autobiography. 'Going on book tours was amazing. I didn't expect the recognition. There were people coming up to me saying I had saved their life and I am still getting e-mails to this day.

'My life had been a really weird process. I was open to friends and family - they knew who I was. But then there was this other side. It was just my policy not to discuss my personal life with the media.'

Looking towards London, Louganis believes the standard of diving - and indeed the standard of the Olympics - has improved beyond all expectations. 'The Olympics are evolving,' he said. 'They are in constant motion. Diving is just one example. The divers are doing more difficult dives. The diving boards are getting springier. Techniques are evolving to accommodate the more difficult dives being done. It's evolving and progressing.'

Louganis was effectively out of the loop until he was approached by the high-performance director for USA Diving, Steve Foley, who wanted to know how to get him involved again.

Louganis replied: 'Ask.'

He later told NBC in America that homophobia had led to him keeping his distance from USA Diving, and that he had not felt welcome.

But he said: 'I've seen changes and that's the reason I'm back.'

The American diving team hasn't won an Olympic gold since 2000, but Louganis added during his Hong Kong visit that he expects the current team to give the Chinese a run for their money in London.

'In '84 the Chinese were the people to beat and in '88 it was close again,' he said. 'The Chinese have a strong tradition in the sport, but I am just excited by how close I think the competition will be.'

And Louganis won't be missing the pressure. 'I am glad I am not competing now,' he laughed.

'The dives they do now are incredible. It's just great to sit back and enjoy it and that's really what the Olympics are all about.'

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