In terms of Olympic champions who harbored personal secrets, Greg Louganis’ story feels like a timely companion to that of Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner. Yet the documentary devoted to Louganis’ life, “Back on Board: Greg Louganis,” is solidly produced but doesn’t deliver quite the splash that it should. Working from the premise that the diver paid a price for having been gay, director/co-writer Cheryl Furjanic devotes considerable time to his financial troubles, including the threat that he might lose his house. The project peaks, finally, once it gets to the 1988 Olympics, but spends too much time until then treading water.
Although the Jenner comparison is inevitable, the film — acquired by HBO Sports — also carries some parallels to that of former NBA star Allen Iverson, who was recently the subject of another feature-length documentary (picked up by Showtime), in the sense that some of the hurdles both athletes faced probably would have been lower had they starred in their respective sports today. Louganis is introduced auctioning off memorabilia, hoping to save the Malibu home he’s owned for 27 years, a victim of being fleeced by a former boyfriend/manager along with having been hamstrung during his prime by the whispers and rumors about his personal life.
“Had he been a straight athlete, he would have made millions,” says former coach Ron O’Brien, and it’s pointed out that Louganis — never featured on a Wheaties box — didn’t cash in the way someone like gymnast Mary Lou Retton did in terms of endorsements.
Determined to demonstrate the diver’s grace and artistry beginning as a 16-year-old prodigy at the 1976 Olympics, Furjanic gets a little too caught up in slow-motion and other devices. As the movie notes, Louganis was poised to break through in 1980 before the U.S. opted to boycott the Moscow Games, eventually winning gold in 1984 (when the Soviets boycotted) and again in Seoul in ’88, along with the unforgettable image of him striking his head on the diving board. A few years later, when he revealed the HIV-positive diagnosis he had received prior to those games, the magnitude of the injury came into stark focus.
That portion of the documentary surrounding the Seoul Games is by far its highlight, with Louganis and O’Brien recalling how they couldn’t divulge his HIV status at the time if he wanted to compete, and discussing the mix of emotions and concerns that raced through Louganis’ mind when the injury opened a gash in his scalp. There are also telling interview snippets, among them then-CNN host Larry King asking after the former diver’s revelation how such a smart guy could have contracted the virus.
There is something poignant about the footage of Louganis now (or really, a couple of years ago), making public appearances to scrape by, and finding his way back to a sport he dominated after having removed himself from it. There’s also an exchange with O’Brien that feels a trifle orchestrated but is nevertheless heartwarming and touching.
Ultimately, though, “Back on Board” just feels a bit too sluggish in its pacing, without bringing much new to Louganis’ well-documented story. That doesn’t mean that the film isn’t worth watching, only that this plunge into it carries a higher degree of difficulty, strictly as a viewing proposition, than it should given the compelling nature of the subject matter. That may sound like nitpicking, but as in diving, being off by just a hair with this sort of endeavor requires a mark-down.