The agony of Ian Thorpe and what it says about his sport, and his nation... We all knew. At least we thought we did. We added up all the usual cues and clues and we assumed as much, despite the years of denials from the man himself.
Even after his handlers insisted he was a fashion-conscious ladies man. Even as he claimed to have that long relationship with Amanda Beard. Even when he denied it in writing in his autobiography, perhaps ironically titled This is Me. It wasn't. Since he was old enough to have the first hints of his sexuality, Thorpe denied being a gay man to himself and to the world.
This weekend, after all those years of denying it, Ian Thorpe came out at the age of 31. In a sit-down interview with Sir Michael Parkinson, Thorpe called it his "big lie." Now that he's spoken the truth, the prevailing response seems to be: Finally. Followed by a shake of the head, as we think: Poor guy, I can't imagine what you've been going through all these years.
Consider the torturous life that Ian Thorpe chose to lead over this last decade and a half in the public eye. He was a world champion at 15, and he was told he was gay soon after. In public, in the press, by everyone who 'just knew'... Meanwhile, teenaged Thorpe didn't know what he liked. All he knew was that he liked to swim, and that he was very very good at it. Coming to terms with sexuality - straight or otherwise - is no easy journey for any teen. For a famous boy wonder sporting hero, in an Aussie culture not known for its tolerance, the question of his sexuality must have filled him with a fear that's hard to fathom.
So, he hid from it. He pretended he was something he wasn't, and slowly he came apart. There was the well documented depression, the drinking, the deep mistrust of any and all journalists. And there was the early retirement. It seems unfair to say, given the truckload of achievements, but Australia's most decorated Olympian of all time may have underachieved as an athlete. He won nine Olympic medals, five of them gold. He won thirteen World Championships medals; eleven of those were gold. He broke thirteen individual world records and was the World Swimmer of the Year four times. He was, and is, the greatest freestyler to ever live.
Throughout all that, he was miserable. By the time he retired, too young, in 2006, he was a 24-year-old too old and weary for his age. He knew his body was still capable of much more, but his psyche couldn't keep pace. How could it? By the time he attempted that comeback back in 2011-12, it was too late. Years of drinking and self-loathing had robbed the champion of a return to glory. Yet, still he denied his basic nature.
These are supposed to be times of unprecedented tolerance. The shame of the closet is supposed to be gone. Pro athletes feel free to come out now, and the thought of rejecting someone for his or her sexuality feels absurd. Like the movement to legalize marijuana, it can sometimes feel as if the battle is already won. Anyone with a few basic brain cells can grasp these things. Gay marriage, legal pot? Really, are we still talking about these things? Not any thinking person I know.
Yet Thorpe's struggles reveal that we're still ages away from those liberal assumptions. Particularly in his land down under, and in countless swimming pools across the world. Maybe if Ian Thorpe had grown up in San Francisco or New York or Amsterdam, or another urban bastion of freedoms, then he might never have gone through these agonies. Instead, he grew up in the suburbs of Sydney, in a country that still hasn't gotten around to legalizing same sex marriage. Indeed, the caricature of the Aussie sports fan is not a generous one. The image of macho, chest thumping blokes who used to call young Thorpe a "poofter" to his face is too easy to picture. Forget about all those Olympic medals and world records, these blokes are enough to torture any young athlete who can't quite relate to what he's supposed to be feeling.
Sure, Aussie culture is partly to blame, but so is swimming culture. This is a sport that pretends to be more tolerant than others, congratulates itself, in fact. Swimmers like to feel superior in many ways, for our work ethics, our physiques, our higher than average jock intelligence...and yes, for the heightened acceptance we think we have. But is any of that really as true as we like to think? Based on his reported agonies, it seems a safe bet that Ian Thorpe was subjected to the same rampant homophobias that exist in so many other locker rooms and fields of play, regardless of sport or nation. Athletes are athletes, and those same fiery qualities of competitiveness and camaraderie may not serve us so well when it comes to accepting teammates who might not be attracted to the same things.
So, if we all knew all along, why does Ian Thorpe's coming out even matter anymore? There've been plenty of smug shrugs in response. Who cares who he likes, the guy's still a king, right? Well, yes. But try telling that to the talented 14-year-old swimmer in the lane next to you. The one who's not quite like everybody else, but damn is that kid fast. Yesterday, he might have quit sports altogether, too shamed and confused and frustrated to continue.
Today, thanks to one long-coming admission by Ian Thorpe, that kid may keep at it.