Beyond absorbing the local Welsh restrictions by which he must abide, Gareth Thomas has his own reasons for avoiding the dire daily warnings about a potentially lethal virus. “When Covid started,” he explains, “I was hearing those trigger words, which create huge amounts of fear: Virus. Disease. Deadly. That’s a big factor in why I stopped listening to everything. There were so many channels putting the fear of God into people, especially somebody like me, who has lived with HIV. You find that ‘disease’ has a very different connotation then.”
It has been 13 months since Thomas, resolving a conflict that had caused him profound torment, decided to tell the world that he was HIV positive.
He was emotionally crushed by the experience of arranging blood tests out of hours and accessing sexual health clinics through the side entrance, just in case his diagnosis was leaked against his will. As such, he assumed autonomy over his own ordeal, completing the Ironman Wales on the day that his HIV status became common knowledge. The image of a muscle-bound rugby player finishing arguably the world’s most gruelling triathlon was one that stood powerfully at odds with the received wisdom about his virus, and its associations with human fragility.
Thomas admits that even his preconceptions had been shaped by the campaigns of the late Eighties, when the UK’s “Don’t Die of Ignorance” adverts inscribed the acronym AIDS on to a giant tombstone.
“There has been nothing since to make the public think differently,” he says. “They think back to Princess Diana going into hospitals for the first time to shake people’s hands. Those images were of very weak, frail people.
“More than 30 years on, it seems as if almost an underground movement of science and medicine has taken place. There has been no news coverage to show the reality of dealing with HIV, or to educate about what it means. I’m trying to depict strength.
“When I did an Ironman, I wanted to show what someone with HIV was capable of physically doing.”
Thomas, the winner of 100 caps for Wales and a former captain of the British and Irish Lions, is focusing his life’s work on trying to destigmatise the condition through his Tackle HIV campaign.
The project, conducted with ViiV Healthcare and bearing endorsements from the Duke of Sussex and Sir Elton John, has laid bare the scale of the challenge to heighten awareness.