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AFI Docs Review: “Back on Board”

Cheryl Furjanic profiles the famed Olympic diver Greg Louganis.

Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

Olympic diver Greg Louganis is best remembered for the worst moment of his career: slamming his head into the diving board at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

That shocking, near-fatal mishap became the prelude to a historic gold medal sweep, made all the more dramatic by Louganis’s then-undisclosed HIV status. But Cheryl Furjanic’s new documentary, Back on Board, goes beyond the headlines, offering a sensitive portrait of the greatest diver in the history of the sport.

The film opens on Louganis in 2011, now in his fifties and facing foreclosure. His seaside California home looks like a mausoleum to his glory days, piled with memorabilia for sale to the highest bidder. After winning five Olympic medals and 47 national titles—and despite making a second career of acting, writing, and public speaking—Louganis is on the verge of living out of his RV.

That’s partly because he was too trusting in his younger years, taken in by a series of bad business deals; partly because Americans are too quick to forget their Olympic idols; and partly, perhaps most significantly, because he was different. “I never got a Wheaties box,” Louganis says with a shrug. “Their response was that I didn’t fit their ‘wholesome’ demographic.” In other words, he was gay.

Louganis never felt comfortable in the diving world, enduring homophobic slurs and petty jealousies from his teammates. For most of his career he didn’t enjoy diving, and even wondered aloud “if it was really all worth it.” It wasn’t until Louganis’s HIV diagnosis in 1987 that he came to love the sport, as an “escape from reality.” He threw himself into training for the 1988 Olympics, all the while fearing he wouldn’t live to compete.

But Back on Board is less about Louganis’s past and more about his new sense of purpose. Cut to 2012, when he returns to the Olympics after a two-decade absence. Louganis is out now, mentoring a new generation of divers for the London Games, and for the first time in his life he feels welcome among fellow divers.

Louganis’s story reflects, on the most superficial level, the progress of gay rights in America. In the space of three decades he has gone from being ostracized by his teammates and grilled about his sex life on national television to getting married to his partner last year. The documentary invites, but doesn’t belabor, this long view of history, focusing instead on the diver’s individual experience. Coming on the heels of a recent spate of films about the early years of the AIDS epidemic— Dallas Buyers Club, HBO’s The Normal Heart, and the riveting documentary How to Survive a PlagueBack on Board feels like a minor, deeply personal part of that larger narrative. It has plenty of feel-good triumphs for the sports biopic fan, and each of Louganis’s graceful, seemingly effortless dives is still a nail biter all these years later. But the film never sacrifices the man for the legend.

Screening Friday, June 20, 4:45 PM at the National Portrait Gallery, and Saturday, June 21, 1:45 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.

Return to AFI Docs page.