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On World AIDS Day, honoring 5 amazing gay athletes with HIV

Sports has not escaped the disease’s ravages, but some offer hope and inspiration.

The 2016 ESPYS - Arrivals
Greg Louganis, left, and husband Johnny Chaillot at the 2016 ESPYS in Los Angeles.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Today is World AIDS Day, a day to remember the 35 million worldwide who have died from the disease and the 36.7 million still living with HIV. The disease has especially hit hard gay and bisexual men, and athletes have not been immune.

There have been more than 20 prominent athletes — gay, straight and bi — who have contracted HIV/AIDS and I wanted to highlight five who have a special resonance for me and other LGBT people in sports.

Greg Louganis

The four-time Olympic gold medal diver tested HIV-positive in 1988, but is now thriving thanks to advances in treating HIV. Louganis is proof-positive that being HIV-positive is not the death sentence it was for most people who contracted the virus in the early days of the epidemic. It doesn’t mean it has been easy, as he told ESPN this summer. But he has persevered and continues to be an inspiration as an athlete and a man.

When I look around at my contemporaries, I'd say I'm probably in better shape than most of them [laughs]. It's all about making healthy choices. I think HIV has helped motivate me mentally and physically. I look at working out and doing something physically active every day as being as important as taking my meds. That's just a part of my health and well-being. I notice that if I don't work out, then my head starts spinning; I go to some pretty crazy places. So I do yoga, I do spin, I do circuit training. I've started introducing back some gymnastics and some tumbling to maintain strength and flexibility. It's fun and it gives me an outlet. ...

I try to live by example -- being gay, being HIV-positive -- you know, life goes on. HIV taught me that I'm a lot stronger than I ever believed I was. Also, not to take anything for granted. I didn't think I would see 30, and here I am at 56.

Ji Wallace

The Australian won a silver medal in the trampoline in the 2000 Olympics and came out publicly as HIV-positive after seeing Louganis interviewed on CNN. He stresses the importance to every gay man of knowing their status.

“From that very first day, I wanted to scream at the world, ‘Know your status! Get yourself tested and know your status!’ Because a lot of people wouldn’t be in the situation that I was in if everybody knew their status. So right from the get-go, I wanted to do something about it.”

“I only have a tiny, small voice,” Wallace says. “And if it can reach some people that don’t see the light or feel they have nowhere to turn in a vulnerable situation like returning an HIV-positive test, then I feel like I’ve ‘gayed it forward.’ I’ve given back to people who have supported me for such a long time.”

Wallace is still thriving and remains an advocate for people living with HIV.

Glenn Burke

A former star with the Los Angeles Dodgers and then Oakland A’s, Burke was out to his teammates in the 1970s, something unheard of then (and even now). As I wrote in a 2010 review of a documentary on Burke:

What’s remarkable about Burke is how out he was in the 1970s. Not in a “Hey world, I’m gay” way, but in the sense that his teammates knew as did the management of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Burke’s first team, and eventually fans who would taunt him from the outfield bleachers in Oakland by calling him a “fag.” A memorable moment in “Out” occurs when it is recalled that the Dodgers – trying to stifle rumors that a popular player was gay -- offered Burke $75,000 to get married. His reply: “I guess you mean to a woman?”

The Burke who emerges in “Out” is a man described as incredibly funny and flamboyant (who in the late 1970s kept a red jock in his locker), yet also self-assured in his sexuality. In that way, Burke was a pioneer. His teammates knew, but avoided confronting him because they knew he could handle himself in a fight.

Burke is credited with inventing the high-five. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994, and died from complications of the virus on May 30, 1995, at age 42.

Jerry Smith

The greatest tight end to not make the Hall of Fame, Smith was a star with the Washington Redskins in the 1970s. He was also gay, something he never publicly acknowledged. Dave Kopay, who came out as gay in 1975, was a teammate of Smith’s with the Redskins — the two had sex once — and still tells me fondly of their times together and how their teammates knew and were generally accepting. NFL Films did a wonderful “A Football Life” documentary on Smith that did not shy away from his sexual orientation.

Smith died of AIDS in 1986 at age 43.

Tom Waddell

An Olympic decathlete in 1968 and physician, Waddell founded the Gay Games, a quadrennial event that will hold its 11th event in Paris in 2018. The Gay Games have meant so much to me as a gay man and I owe it all to Waddell.

It’s hard to condense such an amazing life as one led by Waddell, but this portion of an excellent 2014 ESPN.com feature gives a flavor.

In many ways, Waddell was a paragon of traditional masculinity. He was a superior athlete, good enough to take sixth in the world in the decathlon in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He was a paratrooper in the Army. He was a doctor with a dazzling sense of adventure -- working in Africa on patients with tropical diseases and becoming the physician for the Saudi Arabian Olympic team in 1976.

Beneath his reddish-blond hair and gentle grin, he had a physique that commanded attention. Once when he was training for the Olympics, Waddell peeled off his shirt to change before a workout and his old college track coach Vern Cox marveled, "By God, he got what I ordered!"

Modest but charismatic, unfailingly polite but adventurous sometimes to the point of recklessness, he was irresistible to women. Back at a time when such things mattered, he was a marvelous dancer. Twice he became engaged.

Then, in 1976, he came out as publicly as possible -- in People magazine.

"I believed that I wasn't sick," he said in the story, "that my feelings were quite normal if not accepted by most of society. I decided that was their hang-up and not mine."

Waddell died of AIDS in 1987 at age 49. His final words to his daughter: "Well, this should be interesting."