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Anyone who doubts that documentaries can have as much dramatic and emotional power as the best narrative films should see the Greg Louganis doc, Back on Board, which played during the final weekend of Outfest. This film not only recounts Louganis’ Olympic triumphs and his struggles with AIDS (discussed in his 1996 autobiography), but it also examines more recent events in his life that have not been so well documented. This is a rich, satisfying story, skillfully told by director Cheryl Furjanic and her co-writer and producer, Will Sweeney. Despite the obstacles facing documentaries in the marketplace, this one should find a home. It’s a keeper.
The film cuts back and forth between Louganis today, when he is facing unexpected financial troubles, to his history as a star diver who had career disappointments as well as amazing successes. He became the only diver in history to win two gold medals in two successive Olympic contests — Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988. What made those victories even sweeter were the disappointments that led up to them. When Louganis competed for the first time in 1976, when he was just 16, he missed out on the championship. Expectations were high for his next appearance, but then the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, so there was an unexpected eight-year gap between his Olympic competitions, and the outcome was by no means guaranteed.
Between 1984 and 1988, Louganis took up with a lover (identified only as Jim in the film) who contracted AIDS. By the time of the 1988 Olympics, Louganis was also HIV-positive, and when he hit his head on the diving board in a trial and bled into the water, he was consumed by guilt about the risk of infecting others. But he felt he had to keep his condition secret.
The drama in Louganis’ life did not end with his retirement from diving in 1988. His health deteriorated over the next few years. He survived thanks to new drug regimens, only to face financial setbacks. The film suggests that homophobia may have played a part in Louganis’ economic problems. Even though he did not come out publicly until the ’90s, there were widespread rumors that he was gay, which may be why he did not secure the lucrative advertising contracts that many other successful athletes snagged.
The film probably doesn’t tell the whole story. One can’t help feeling that Louganis might have made some bad decisions and passed up opportunities that would have offered him more financial security. But no single film can cover every single aspect of an athlete’s personal and professional history. This one comes pretty close, though. Louganis himself is remarkably candid in acknowledging some of his own regrets.
Louganis is not the only hero of this movie. One comes away with great admiration for his coaches, Dr. Sammy Lee and especially Ron O’Brien, who coached Louganis from 1978 through his performances in Seoul in 1988. O’Brien knew about Louganis’ homosexuality and his HIV status, yet he never wavered in his support. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when Louganis presents O’Brien with one of his gold medals at a recent reunion. It’s also heartening to see the U.S. Olympic committee finally embracing Louganis after years of exile and enlisting him to become a mentor to divers competing in the 2012 London Olympics.
This tightly edited film incorporates vivid footage from the various Olympic competitions as well as telling interviews with Louganis, O’Brien, and many of the other important people in his life, including the man he married last year. For once, the rousing ovation that this film received at its festival showing was well deserved.
Director: Cheryl Furjanic
Screenwriters: Cheryl Furjanic, Karen Sim, Will Sweeney
Producers: Will Sweeney, Cheryl Furjanic
Executive producers: David Kaplan, Joan Kaplan, Grey Sample, Diana Holtzberg
Directors of photography: Nicolas de Miranda, Kira Kelly
Editors: Karen Sim, Jessica Thompson
Music: Thomas Rutishauser
No rating, 86 minutes
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