For close on 20 years, Ian Thorpe has been in the media spotlight. Breaking onto the international swimming scene at 14 years of age, just three years later he was the darling of Australia winning five medals, including three golds, at his home Olympic Games in Sydney.
But two decades of media scrutiny has brought with it a love/hate relationship for Thorpe, now retired from the pool through injury. The pressure the media put him under with regard to his sexuality was difficult to digest but he’s now using their reach and influence to forward the acceptance of gay athletes as well as his work against bullying.
This is Ian Thorpe’s game plan.
After years of trying to avoid the media you are now one of them. What’s changed?
Yes. People say, “You didn’t like the media. Why do you work with them?” I get asked this a lot. But in my time I’ve met some fantastic journalists that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. To paint the media with one brush is really unfair. I also felt that I had a contribution to make in sport. In what I thought about different things in different sports and then also a contribution that is from my own experience in sport and outside of it.
Tell us about your move into commentary?
Well it’s not dissimilar to training for an event and then performing on the day. I love live television. You can’t make mistakes and I do months of preparation just in case I need to know a certain statistic or what an athlete did, what time they did at this competition.
And now you’re also working in the media to help combat bullying among young people?
Yes. It’s a very powerful medium to create change, to create a conversation, and where you can actually shape people’s opinions. I worked on a documentary series on bullying for just over 12 months. I was filming for six months. This was an incredibly intense documentary series to put together. We had very brave young people that were willing to do this. It’s an important topic so I don’t think you should shy away from these kinds of areas.
I’ve become a patron for ReachOut in Australia, a large online resource that deals with young people’s mental health issues. It’s an important support for them and their families.
Is it a resource you wish you had access to as a young teenager when your sexuality was questioned in the media?
I think I was inappropriately young. I was asked when I was a child. I look at it now and I find it inappropriate for anyone to ask another about their sexuality. Because you don’t know where they are at with it. If they’re struggling, if they’re aware of where they are. Especially for someone so young.
What happens is that you hear people accusing you of being gay. You then interpret an accusation as being a negative. You never see the good side to that. For me it was difficult – I was too young then so I lied about that.
What would you have changed about that period in your life?
In coming out you become an example that makes it easier for someone else that may find themselves in more difficult circumstances than what you were in. That resonates with me now and makes a lot of sense.
I didn’t realize and I wished someone had explained this to me earlier and it may have meant that I came out earlier. When I consider this for young athletes now, it’s far less of an issue.
So is sport a comfortable place for athletes of all sexualities to be themselves?
I can only talk of my experience and what I know in this area. For most part in my sport, it was actually pretty good. It isn’t really an issue. But that said, I also know that there’s not many out athletes. Actually, we know it from research, there’s far more athletes that aren’t prepared to come out. There’s some work that we need to do in this area to make sure that people know that it’s acceptable and it’s the right thing to do. Also what that means for a future generation of athletes. The messaging that you get, the way that you feel is equal to the way that anyone else feels. That’s why it is important to have role models and people who are comfortable being out.
Your struggle with mental health is well documented. How do you deal with depression?
I am focusing on working on my mental health each day and taking some level of control over it. For me now, it’s about being aware of the signs before it takes hold. By acknowledging it before getting into that state, you either reduce the amount of time that you may go through that kind of depressed experience or you may avoid it entirely. It’s being pro-active with that. Having an understanding of yourself and also at times not being so hard on yourself because of it.
Looking back on your success in the pool, is it your outrageous medal count that shows your worth?
Lastly do you have any advice for young guns that peak early in their sporting or business career?
I think you have to go with what you have at the time especially if you look at business; you don’t know exactly when you’re going to have a hit. If you’re an entrepreneur, you can’t always plan these things. When it happens, when you get your big break, you have to be prepared to go with it and to make the most of that opportunity.
I also think that there’s an advantage in being young and having the mindset of a young person. As you become older, you begin to listen to other people that tell you why you cannot do something. When you’re a young person, really the sky is the limit. You can achieve great things.
And finally with a gesture, show us how you now deal with the critics and the bullies.
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