When courage counted, Louganis didn't have it

March 01, 1995|By ROGER SIMON

Greg Louganis is many things, including a magnificent athlete and superstar, but a profile in courage he is not.

While much is now being made about how brave it is for him to admit he has AIDs, this is very much part of a commercial transaction: Louganis is pushing a book.

And all his admissions and confessions -- to Barbara Walters, to Oprah, to Larry King -- have been timed so that this book will sell as many copies as possible.

Fine. I do not begrudge Louganis publicity or wealth.

But when admitting he was HIV-positive really would have been courageous -- when he needed to tell a doctor to wear protective gloves before treating his open wound -- Louganis kept silent.

He now says he is sorry. He now says what he did was wrong.

But this is being swept aside in the gush of hero worship that has accompanied his publicity tour.

We shouldn't sweep it aside, however. We should learn from it.

In early 1988, six months before he was to compete in the Olympics, Louganis learned he had the AIDS virus.

He decided to keep it a secret.

I don't have a problem with this. I do not think people with the AIDS virus ought to be branded with their disease. They have a right to privacy. And Louganis broke no Olympic rules by keeping silent.

But when Louganis hit his head on a springboard during the competition and opened up a two-inch bleeding wound, the situation changed dramatically.

Not because of Louganis' blood spilling into the pool. That was a risk to no one.

But Louganis had to have his wound stitched up by team doctor James Puffer.

"I was in total panic that I might cause someone else harm," Louganis writes in his book. "Did I get any blood in the pool? Then I worried about Dr. Puffer, who wasn't wearing gloves. I was paralyzed. All I could do was cry."

Dr. Puffer was rushed. After determining that Louganis did not have a concussion or fracture, Dr. Puffer had only 10 minutes to close the wound so Louganis could dive again. If Louganis missed his next dive, he would be disqualified.

Dr. Puffer looked for his protective gloves, but could not find them. Another pair could be fetched, but was there time?

"I had to make a quick decision as to the whether I was going to close the wound or wait for gloves to be found and risk not being finished in sufficient time for him to complete his last dive," Dr. Puffer said recently. "I decided to close the wound without waiting. The risk, while there, was minimal."

But Dr. Puffer did not know Louganis was HIV-positive. And a doctor treating an open wound on such a patient needs to take reasonable precautions.

Which Louganis realized. He had known Dr. Puffer and his wife for 10 years. They were his friends.

"What's my responsibility?" Louganis asked himself that day. "Do I say something? I was paralyzed with fear."

What was Louganis afraid of? Two things: His secret would be revealed. And he might not be allowed to dive and win more gold medals.

So Louganis clammed up. Then and for the next six years.

In fact, Louganis told the doctor only nine months to a year ago, when Louganis knew he was going to be writing about and publicizing his life story.

Louganis claims that he thought doctors were routinely tested for the AIDS virus. But it seems to me that in six years Louganis easily could have checked this out.

"He [Puffer] didn't get tested until I told him," Louganis now admits.

The doctor tested negative last year and does not blame Louganis.

And Louganis, to his credit, now recognizes the error of what he did.

"It was irresponsible of me," Louganis says.

It was. And that is what we should learn from Louganis.

Those who have the AIDS virus or any other medical condition have no responsibility to reveal it unless keeping silent risks infecting others.

And then they must speak up. And that takes courage.

This is what Louganis lacked at the time and what he wishes to tell us about now.

So instead of gushing over Louganis as we seem always to do with superstar athletes, we ought to do something more difficult:

We ought to listen to him.

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