It’s time for Thorpey to get over his black line fever
This weekend, as the world remembered events in the north eastern Japanese town of Fukushima, Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe would have done well to reflect on his past deeds in the south western Japanese city of Fukuoka.
It was at the 1997 Fukuoka Pan Pacific Championships that 14 year old Ian Thorpe first announced himself to the world, winning silver in the 400m freestyle in an Olympics-strength field.
Four years later, with three Sydney Olympics golds under his belt, Thorpe won an unprecedented six gold medals at the Fukuoka World Championships. Those performances made him an imported icon of Beckhamesque stature in Japan.
He wasn’t exactly unpopular back home either. Even when the selfless Craig Stevens relinquished his spot after Thorpey fell into the pool at the 2004 Olympic trials, Thorpe still had most Australians on side. Hey, it’s not like he asked Stevens to step aside.
Australians tend to like our celebrities approachable and down to earth, especially our sporting personalities. That’s why we warmed to Geoff Huegill, who talked like us, then got fat like us too. Bugger me if he didn’t have sausage and eggs for breakfast the morning I interviewed him, even as he was in full training for his wildly successful Delhi Comm Games comeback.
Thorpe never had that everyman quality. He wasn’t above us, but he wasn’t like us either. Yet here’s the thing. We loved him anyway. Never for a moment did we turn on him en masse the way we turned on that other Western Sydney product Michael Clarke.
When a French newspaper claimed doping abnormalities in 2007, not for a minute for a minute did we suspect Thorpey dunnit. When Thorpe started playing regular coach swapsies, we always assumed the coach was the problem, not the swimmer himself. Lleyton Hewitt never got the benefit of that doubt.
Throughout his career, and even into his retirement, Thorpey was untouchable. He was a touch aloof and a little eccentric, but we loved him.
And then he announced his return. And suddenly, all bets were off. For the first time, people questioned his character. For one thing, his face was all weird and orange. And his comeback press conference was hosted by the CEO of an airline, which led people to question whether Thorpe’s motives were more pecuniary than competitive.
Whether or not he has cashflow issues, Thorpe has certainly lost his appeal in the lucrative Japanese market. Pokemons one day, Tamagotchis the next. In a culture with such a short cultural attention span, who can recall an Australian swimmer who did something or other back in ancient times when samurai warlords ruled?
If Thorpe is short of a dollar, that’s no shame. It happens to the best of us. But this weekend’s rumours of “six figure handshakes” from Swimming Australia to entice him back to the competitive fray didn’t exactly help us sympathise.
That’s why this week is now so important for Thorpe. With the looming Olympic trials in Adelaide, what matters now is not how fast, or more likely slow, he swims. What matters is how Ian Thorpe conducts himself.
Thorpe knows the time has come to talk straight. That’s why last week he admitted the most likely result of his comeback will be failure.
Here’s hoping that if he misses the team, he retires immediately, as Tony Lockett did after a handful of games when it became blisteringly clear he no longer had it anymore.
Ian Thorpe is an intelligent man. Ask him about the work of his Fountain for Youth charity and you’ll find he’s no distant figurehead, but a hands-on operator who can brief you in depth about the causes he supports based on his own experience working in the field.
The man is now 29. To be perfectly frank, swimming up and down a black line for a living is a waste of his talents.
Wet, wet, what?
Thorpe will contest both the 200m and 100m freestyle in Adelaide this week. The 200m and 400m were always his pet events, but he’s given up the longer race, and people forget what a fine 100m swimmer he once was.
In Sydney, he overhauled America’s 100m specialist Gary Hall Jr in the final leg of the famous “smash ’em like guitars 4x100m freestyle relay. Then in Athens, he came from last to snatch bronze in the 100. But Thorpe is now infinitely slower than Australia’s current 100m world champ James Magnussen.
He’s even further off the pace in the 200m. In Athens, Thorpe beat Pieter van den Hoogenband and Michael Phelps in a 200m race prematurely billed as the “Race of the Century”. A more mature Phelps won the Beijing 200m in a time which decimated Thorpey’s old mark. The bar has since lowered by another second.
All of which means, barring a miraculous improvement, Ian Thorpe can only qualify for the London Olympics by swimming sixth fastest or better in the 200m, thereby securing a relay berth.
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