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Did Louganis Act Properly? : Diving: Some wonder whether he should have revealed he was HIV-positive during '88 Games.

February 24, 1995|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Greg Louganis hit his head on the diving board and spilled his blood into the pool at the 1988 Olympic Games, did he have an obligation to disclose to doctors who treated him and to other athletes using the pool that he was HIV-positive?

It is a question being asked since Louganis, who won four gold medals in two Olympics, revealed this week that he has AIDS and was HIV-positive at the Seoul Olympics when he hit his head and bled during the preliminaries of the three-meter springboard competition.

The story of Louganis' overcoming the accident and coming back to win the gold medal is part of diving lore. Until now, only a very few knew the untold portion of the story: That Louganis failed to tell the doctor who applied stitches to the back of his head that he carried the AIDS virus. The doctor, James Puffer, did not wear gloves when he sutured the wound.

The doctor had been hurriedly called in to administer the two large, figure-eight stitches that the two-inch gash required. Puffer, who had little time to treat Louganis before the diver's next turn, didn't immediately find latex gloves in his medical bag. Pressed for time and with no apparent medical need for the gloves, Puffer went without.

Two others on the scene were exposed when they helped Louganis after the mishap: Louganis' coach, Ron O'Brien, who knew the diver was HIV-positive, and Dr. Ben Rubin, chairman of the sports medicine committee for United States Diving, Inc. Rubin came out of the stands to assist Puffer.

The two physicians were unaware of Louganis' condition.

Louganis writes in his just-published book, "Breaking the Surface," that he debated telling Puffer about his condition: "It was irresponsible for me not to, but I didn't want him to have the burden of keeping such a difficult secret."

But Louganis did tell Puffer about a year ago that he was infected with the AIDS virus. Puffer was tested and found negative. Puffer, who is on the staff at the UCLA Medical Center, was unavailable for comment Thursday.

Olympic athletes are tested for an array of performance-enhancing drugs, but they are not required to reveal their HIV status. Mike Moran, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said that policy was not likely to change.

"It is an entirely private matter between the athlete and whoever he or she chooses to tell," Moran said. "We have no intention of requiring tests for HIV or requiring disclosure. People have got to realize that the athletes on the U.S. Olympic team represent America. It represents diversity and every aspect of America. It's an aspect of our teams that we don't intend to regulate in any way, shape or form."

Regarding the blood that spilled into Seoul's Chamshil Pool, the International Olympic Committee and FINA, swimming and diving's world governing body, issued statements Thursday saying that a minuscule amount of blood in chlorinated water posed no threat to anyone.

But Gunnar Werner, secretary of FINA, said Louganis should have spoken up if he thought there was a real risk to others.

"I don't know what knowledge he had about risk of HIV in the water," Werner said. "If he knew there was no risk, I can see no real danger in not saying anything. If he was scared and didn't know anything, I think he took a very serious chance by not saying anything."

None of the other athletes were aware that a potential risk existed, however small. U.S. Olympian Wendy Lucero was sixth in the women's springboard competition, which immediately followed the men's.

"At the time, we didn't give any thought at all to getting in the water," Lucero said from her home in Phoenix. "With what we know now, if someone is HIV-positive in the Olympic arena, we know the precautions to take. . . .

"Looking back on it now, we (other divers) were not in danger. But I believe in testing all Olympic athletes. I think Greg had the right to not tell anyone that he was HIV-positive, but (he should) be honest and fair with the doctor who treated him. The doctor was in jeopardy. He should have told him."

Said Steve McFarland, president of United States Diving, Inc.: "I think it's impossible for us to go back to 1988 and forget everything we've learned about the AIDS virus and make some kind of moral judgment about what Greg did. You have to look at the context of what happened. This rarely happens: A world-class diver hits his head on the board. He never would have thought about how to deal with it, the blood, because it hardly ever happens. Never."

Should Louganis have been expected to disclose his HIV status to Olympic officials when he never envisioned a situation at the Seoul Games where he might put others at risk?

"No," McFarland said. "We live in a country that prizes the right of privacy and individual freedom. I can't imagine a scenario where we would require all athletes to provide complete medical histories in order to compete. I just can't see it."

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