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Thorpie proves mortality is no vice

  • 11 December 2006

This website has been temporarily closed. However, there will be some exciting news shortly. – Ian Thorpe website post, November 2006.

It was a dramatic denouement. The press was waiting. Fellow swimmers were wondering. "It will be a huge announcement," one unnamed Australian swimming official told Associated Press. But on 21 November 2006, Ian Thorpe, arguably Australia’s greatest swimmer, announced that he would "discontinue [his] professional career". Only two days prior, he had made a personal decision to avoid swimming in the forthcoming World Championships. Glandular fever and a general loss of motivation had exacted their toll.

This was the "exciting" news promised on Thorpe’s own website; the realisation that he was only human. He would not be another addition to the pantheon of Australians who had overcome (admittedly more) serious conditions. His was an illness narrative with a negative ending. Kylie Minogue conquered cancer; Delta Goodrem fought back non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; and Thorpe’s compatriot, long-distance swimmer Grant Hackett, returned from shoulder surgery. His premature departure still leaves a striking record. Five Olympic gold medals; world champion at fifteen; named "World Swimmer of the Year" four times by Swimming World Magazine; winner of eleven world titles. Perhaps one of the finest middle-distance swimmers that ever graced the pool. But these records propelled Thorpe beyond the pool. Corporate fashion giants sought him: Armani made him their ambassador. He trafficked in the lucrative market of underwear, jewellery, glorified celluloid (many would prefer to forget the appalling Undercover Angels). Beyond his swimming, Thorpe will be remembered as being a peculiarly different Australian sporting icon. Yes, he did what was expected of any Australian athlete. He broke records, brought home medals, abhorred failure. Yet he always seemed a touch too clean; not rugged despite his incredible strength; androgynous, even artificial in his space-age body suit. Unlike the coarser, less fluent Hackett, it all seemed so easy. Military, macho metaphors may have been used to label him (the "Thorpedo"), but he was never admitted to the cult of the Australian male.

With such performing personalities as Thorpe, a new, slightly tortured word came into being: the metrosexual. The Age announced it in one its articles on 11 March 2003: "Macho man has bitten the dust." There was Thorpe; then there was David Beckham. Men could dress stylishly, be seen at catwalks, and not be stigmatised as homosexual. One could be fashionable and clean without batting for