• Rewind to 1988

The day an Olympic great got his dive wrong

ESPN staff
July 19, 2012
Greg Louganis required stitches after hitting his head on the diving board at the 1988 Olympic Games © PA Photos

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It's fair to say that Greg Louganis has had a remarkable life and the 1988 Olympics was full of drama for one of the greatest divers in history.

Already a silver-medal winner in the Games at the tender age of 16, and a double champion in 1984, the American was involved in a shocking incident when clipping the back of his head on the diving board in the preliminary round in Seoul.

Lesser men would have withdrawn but he bounced back to win both the platform and springboard golds, scooping the Olympic Committee Spirit Award along the way and repeating his feat of four years earlier in Los Angeles.

Of course, Louganis had far more to battle than the concussion he suffered when receiving the blow to the head. He was living with the knowledge that he was HIV positive. Only a close circle of friends knew the secret and he'd seriously considered withdrawing from the Games.

"I knew I was in a country that I wouldn't be welcome at if they knew my status," he recalled. "I was paralysed with fear but I'd worked too long and hard to get there and did not want to give up.

"Winning the gold was bittersweet because I knew in my heart those were my last competitive dives. I thought I was going to retire from the sport, go home and lock myself in my house and wait to die from HIV."

It's a startling admission by the man from California and makes the accident itself seem awfully trivial. But it was a moment that certainly brought more worldwide attention to the diving event. After appearing to slip a little on the board, a reverse 2½-somersault pike went badly wrong and he splashed dramatically into the water.

Diving coach Vince Panzano commented: "I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I saw it developing as soon as he took off from the board. It's the worst thing a diver can do. On that particular dive, Greg always seems to be closer to the board than he should be. There's no reason for that. Judges don't give higher scores because a diver is close to the board."

There were gasps from the crowd and few could believe what had happened. "It was a moment that made the sporting world shudder," wrote the Chicago Sun. "His dramatic show of courage was a defining moment of the 1988 Games."

Temporary sutures allowed Louganis to resume his qualifying campaign 35 minutes later, going through in third place, and he ended up having five stitches inserted into the wound.

Louganis recovered to win both the platform and springboard golds © PA Photos

Prophetically, he had said in the lead-up to the Olympics: "You never know, anything can happen - an injury, illness or a bad day" when lauded as the runaway favourite for gold.

"I didn't realise that I was that close to the board," he said. "When I hit it, it was kind of a shock. But I think my pride was hurt more than anything else."

It catapulted Louganis into the world's consciousness. If YouTube was around in 1988, it would have gone into meltdown. It wasn't until 1994 that Louganis declared he was gay and HIV positive. Unsurprisingly, his incredible story became a best-selling book 'Breaking the Surface'.

"I guess you can tease me about being a drama queen, because that did heighten the drama," declared Louganis, but the accident itself could have been extremely serious.

Never mind the relative ease of his success over China's Tan Liangde and Li Delian, there were genuine fears for his safety. "I thought he was dead," said one spectator. "We were all amazed when he came up."

Louganis was in attendance himself when diver Sergei Chalibashvili died in 1983 after hitting his head on the concrete platform. "I was really scared going into today," he admitted afterwards. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't but I was scared."

The Californian has overcome much more during his life but his response to a potentially fatal incident was to get back on the diving board and prove himself to be the best in the world. That sums up his character.

What happened next? Louganis has been involved in a number of films and has a passion for dog agility competitions. He still coaches divers in California but says: "There's no such thing as a perfect dive. It's something to strive for, but you never reach it."

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