Roanoke Times
                 Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: SATURDAY, July 9, 1994                   TAG: 9407090023
SECTION: SPORTS                    PAGE: B3   EDITION: METRO 
SOURCE: Knight-Ridder/Tribune
DATELINE: ST. LOUIS                                LENGTH: Long


Through four Olympics and countless world diving competitions, Greg Louganis said he never felt more pressure than he felt Thursday when he openly addressed his homosexuality.

"Terrifying," is how Louganis described standing before a ballroom crowded with 1,000 Olympic Festival athletes and corporate sponsors and saying he was gay. Most of the audience appeared stunned.

It was whispered for years that Louganis was gay, and it is believed that is why he never received the number of endorsement deals you would expect for a four-time Olympic gold medalist. The question followed him like a cloud, but until Thursday, Louganis was reluctant to address it publicly.

"I'm just starting [to discuss it]," said Louganis, who put on a diving exhibition and spoke at the recent Gay Games in New York. Surprisingly, his participation received little notice in the mainstream press.

"It has been a kind of evolution. This [speech] was the next step. I was terrified, but now that it's over, I feel relieved. Relieved and proud."

Louganis, 34, came to the Olympic Festival to receive the Robert J. Kane Award, presented annually to an American athlete who exemplifies "a commitment to excellence and dedication to sport." The breakfast ceremony, sponsored by Xerox, drew a capacity crowd to the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Louganis opened his remarks by dedicating the award to Tom Waddell, a former U.S. decathlete who founded the Gay Games and died of AIDS. Louganis went on to say: "The USOC is sending a positive message by honoring an openly gay athlete," meaning himself.

A buzz swept the room as Louganis continued, noting that Cobb County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta that will play host to the preliminary rounds of volleyball at the 1996 Summer Olympics, has passed a resolution condemning the gay and lesbian lifestyle.

Louganis urged the U.S. Olympic Committee and Atlanta Organizing Committee, both of which had representatives in the audience, to address the Cobb County issue so that any gay or lesbian athlete who competes in Olympic volleyball in 1996 is not subject to the additional pressure of discrimination.

"No athlete should have to worry about being judged," Louganis said. "They should only have to worry about doing their best. It is not a political issue. It is an issue of fairness."

Louganis spoke for five minutes, reading nervously from a text he prepared beforehand. The Olympic Hall of Famer received a standing ovation when he was introduced, but only a handful of people stood to applaud when he finished speaking.

The audience response was respectful, but subdued. It was as if many of those who came to see Louganis honored needed time to sort things out. His remarks seemed to take everyone in the room by surprise. Even USOC staffers claimed they had no idea this was coming.

"Greg had an opportunity to say something and he did," said Mike Moran, USOC director of public relations who served as master of ceremonies. "It may have stunned some people, but I wouldn't categorize it as a bombshell. These are the '90s."

"I thought [the speech] was beautiful and courageous," said Wendy Williams, who competed on the 1984 and '88 Olympic diving teams with Louganis. "I feel great for him, because he is being what he is, not what the public wants him to be."

Although Williams was around Louganis for more than a decade, she claimed she did not know he was gay. She said Louganis was, "a nice guy, but very private."

"We [the other divers] respected his privacy."

Asked if she foresaw a public backlash against Louganis, who is regarded as the greatest diver of all time, Williams said: "I hope not. I mean, there shouldn't be."

"Anyone who feels that way and would overlook Greg's accomplishments, they are small-minded and not worth worrying about," Williams said.

Louganis was perspiring heavily when approached by reporters after his talk. The San Diego native, who was so unflappable on the diving platform, needed a table napkin to mop his brow as he answered questions. At one point, he began fanning himself with a menu in an attempt to cool off.

"That was hard," he said. "I wanted it to go well. I thought it did, despite my nerves."

Someone asked Louganis which was tougher, nailing his final dive at the 1988 Seoul Olympics or delivering the speech?

"This was tougher, because I had to talk," Louganis said. "When I was diving, I could let my body communicate for me. Even in acting, someone else supplies the words. Here, it was all me.

"I decided a few weeks ago I wanted to do this. I read about [Cobb County] and felt so strongly about the issue, I wanted to speak out. Prejudice is based on ignorance. It comes out of fear.

"It took a while to write the speech. I hope it has an effect," Louganis said. "Harvey [Schiller, USOC executive director] came to me afterward and said they were trying to do something. I hope it works."

Louganis would not discuss his personal life in much detail. He has written an autobiography - "Breaking the Surface" is scheduled for January release by Random House - and his response to many questions asked Thursday was, "It's in the book."

Examples: When did he realize he was gay? What was it like to live with the rumors? Did he feel as if he led two lives? How much pressure did it add to what he already felt as an Olympic hero?

All good questions, but . . .

"It's in the book."

Did the gossip cost him potential endorsements? If so, how many?

"There's a lot of speculation," Louganis said. "But I deal with that in the book."

Louganis has one endorsement deal, with Speedo, the swimwear company. He is not worried about losing that, he said, because he conferred with the company before Thursday's talk and it stands behind him.

"They support me all the way," Louganis said. "Same with my family and friends. That has helped a lot."

Unlike most U.S. divers, Louganis did not come from affluence. He was born to teenage parents and put up for adoption as an infant. His bronze skin (his natural father was Samoan) prompted classmates to call him "nigger."

He stuttered and suffered from dyslexia, which went undiagnosed until he was 18.

He smoke and drank as a teenager and almost flunked out of school. He was going nowhere until he found diving. Even as he gained fame in the sport, Louganis stayed in a shell. Now we know why.

Asked what he is doing now, Louganis smiled and said: "I'm between jobs. That is the story of an actor's life."

Last year, Louganis appeared in the off-Broadway production "Jeffrey." The play dealt with society's attitude toward AIDS and Louganis had the role of Darius, a chorus dancer dying of the disease. He received very good reviews.

"That role was part of my evolution. Now, I'm on to the next step [in going public]," said Louganis, who has changed his look - he has longer hair and two earrings - since retiring from diving after the 1988 Summer Games.

His final victory in Seoul underscored the fearless competitor in Louganis. In a preliminary round, Louganis mistimed his reverse 2 1/2 somersault and struck the back of his head on the springboard. He needed four stitches to close the wound.

Louganis came back the next day, needing the same dive to win the gold medal. When he stepped onto the board, he smiled and tapped his chest as if to say his heart was racing. Then he nailed the dive to become the first man to win the platform and springboard events in successive Olympic Games.

"He proved himself in the highest fashion of a champion," U.S. team manager Micki Hogue said. "He's always been a rock, but he became a mountain."

 by CNB