Less than 24 hours after an Australian Olympic Federation official recommended players from that country boycott any games against the U.S. Olympic basketball team, widespread criticism led to a disavowal of the remarks by the Australian Olympic Committee.
The initial statement was a recommendation that the Australian Olympic team avoid what medical science has stated is the minute risk of contracting Johnson's AIDS virus during a game.
"This is obviously a very topical subject and the remarks have been blown out of all proportion," said Tom Grealy, public-affairs consul at the Australian Consulate-General in Los Angeles. "The Australian Olympic Committee has disassociated itself from these most unfortunate remarks."
Johnson, the former Laker star point guard, retired from the NBA on Nov. 7, announcing he had tested positive for the AIDS virus. But since retiring, Johnson has said he intends to play in the Olympics and in the NBA All-Star Game.
With All-Star voting complete, the NBA announced that Johnson received more votes than all but three Western Conference players. He is expected to play in the game, on Feb. 9 in Orlando.
Johnson and his agent, Lon Rosen, both were out of town and unreachable, but the NBA issued a statement in response to the controversial remarks Wednesday by Australian Olympic Federation senior medical director Dr. Brian Sando. Several Australian players expressed similar concerns to those of Sando.
"We think that the source is ill-informed," the statement said. "His views do not represent the prevailing medical opinion on this subject and that the chances of contracting the HIV virus through athletic competition are infinitesimal."
As for Johnson's participation in the NBA All-Star Game, commissioner David Stern said, "We have consulted with league medical advisers and with Magic's doctors and have been assured that Magic's competing in the All-Star Game should not pose any health risk to Magic or the other participants."
The NBA's stance on Johnson was overshadowed by Sando's comments, which drew fire from outside the basketball world. Terry Ford, a member of the Los Angeles branch of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), read a statement from the organization.
"ACT UP-Los Angeles is appalled at the overt AIDS phobia showed by the physician of the Australian team, as well as its team members," the statement said. "It is ridiculous that 11 years into this devastating crisis, a world Olympic team physician is still so ignorant. The HIV virus is not contagious and is very difficult to attract."
AIDS Project Los Angeles spokesman Anthony Sprauve echoed ACT UP's message.
Said Sprauve, "We're just outraged they would even consider something like this. It's sad that 11 years into this epidemic, doctors associated with an Olympic team still don't know how the AIDS virus is transmitted. Unfortunately, Magic is now experiencing some of the discrimination people with AIDS and the virus experience every day."
The medical profession has been virtually unanimous in stating that the chances of the AIDS virus being transmitted during a basketball game are exceedingly slim, and would involve an infected player being cut and the subsequent blood somehow being taken in by another player.
"The risk, especially in a sport like basketball, is very, very, very low," said Dr. Jim Montgomery, the chief physician for the U.S. Summer Olympic team. Montgomery added that the U.S. Olympic Committee is "in total support of Magic."
Dr. Jacques Huguet, president of the medical council of FIBA, the international basketball federation, said the chance of transmission of the virus in a game is "maybe one in a million."
To further decrease what risk there is, FIBA in December passed a rule ordering that any player cut during a game be removed until the bleeding is stopped.
"That's a reasonable precaution," Sprauve said.
Even Sando acknowledges the risk of transmission is small, but said, "You cannot absolutely say it's never going to occur."
Sando is not alone in his cautious stance. Sports Illustrated recently reported that an unidentified U.S. Olympic teammate-to-be of Johnson's has reservations about Johnson's participation.