Evening Standard

Ian Thorpe is about to publish a cookbook and adores Indian food. “I love cooking with spices,” he says. “The aroma that fills the kitchen when you cook with them is magical.”

Such a shame then that he has never visited India and during the Commonwealth Games spent the entire time commentating from the BBC studios in White City. The broadcaster decided not to have its presenters based in the Indian capital — the first time that has happened since the Kuala Lumpur Games in 1998.

But the absence of the Beeb and so many top athletes and the negative stories that surrounded the event have not diminished the competition in Thorpe’s eyes.

Voice of concern: Ian Thorpe commentated for the BBC at the Commonwealth Games, where he was far from impressed by England’s efforts in the pool. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

He won 10 Commonwealth golds and maintains: “None of this detracts from them. This was a tremendously important Commonwealth Games. They are unique, they aren’t regional and they have a great history.”

It was, perhaps, in the pool where Delhi came alive with most of the best swimmers from the home nations, Canada and Thorpe’s native Australia taking part.

As a form guide for the 2012 Olympics, England would have been delighted with their medal haul of seven gold, 16 silver and 11 bronze.

Thorpe, though, was unimpressed. “I was getting a little bit frustrated with some of the negative language that’s come out. Remarks like, I wasn’t feeling my best,’ and I feel like I’m not going to be able swim as well here,’ or I’m not feeling 100 per cent.’

“Sometimes you don’t get a second shot. Even if you’re not feeling 100 per cent, you have to be able to deliver.

“British swimmers need to front up and be responsible for their entire performances, no matter what’s going on. In my career I was either too ill to compete or I was competing. I’ve swum when I’ve been sick. I’ve felt I just needed to get on with it and do the job at hand. I trained too much to miss an opportunity to compete and I didn’t let anything get in my way. When it was my time to race, I was in there delivering my very best.”

Thorpe, 28, does not dispute that swimming has improved in Britain, not that the Aussie gives any credit in the turnaround to former performance director and his fellow countryman Bill Sweetenham, who was in charge from 2000 to 2007.

“He was a dud coach for British swimming,” Thorpe insists. “I just don’t think he was the best person for the job. Perhaps he shook things up a bit but I don’t see his contribution as being significant. There are a lot of other people, individual swimmers and individual coaches who have contributed more than him.

“The British have always had good swimmers, they haven’t been hopeless. What has happened, collectively, is that the organisation has become better.”

But does Thorpe worry that British swimming success emphasises that the gap with Australia is closing and that his country is no longer a certain sporting winner?

“There was a period when we were winning everything and that was not normal,” Thorpe says.

“We’re not always going to be the number one nation. This is an adjustment back to reality. Australia is not performing badly in sport. We’re performing at a normal level, which is still above the standard of nearly every other country in the world.”

And, according to Thorpe, Australia’s past success was not down to its systems but to brilliant individuals.

“It had very little to do with the organisation of sport in Australia,” he claims. “It was just by chance that these things all fell into place. If I look at swimming, it just happened that we had four to six great swimmers who all came along at the same time.

“Most of us weren’t involved in any of the development programmes that were in place to assist the swimmers. It all comes back to individual athletes and individual coaches.”

Looking at Thorpe’s remarkable achievements in the pool, it is difficult to argue that success is down to systems rather than individuals.

Ten years ago in Sydney, Thorpe kept his focus to win three golds and two silvers, ignoring the weight of expectations that could have distracted him at his home Games.

“I was aware of the pressure from the Australian population for me to succeed,” admitted Thorpe. “It was also important for the Olympic movement that Sydney was successful, and it was. The biggest criticism of the Sydney Olympics is the lack of legacy. Look, the Olympics were a two-and-a-half-week commercial for Australia. A very good commercial.

“We all came together, this was a national project. Then, post-Olympics, all of that was dismantled and we didn’t have anyone working on the legacy. The Australians really didn’t care. We must put our hands up now and say, That is one part we got wrong and we could have done far more.’”

Thorpe has simple advice to London if the capital wants to avoid Sydney’s mistake. “Don’t make legacy a buzz word that’s forgotten,” he says. “I hope London delivers. I hope it’s the benchmark for all Olympics post 2012. This country has the opportunity to create something that will exist beyond the London Olympic Games.

“An Olympic Games by itself will not be able to overcome all of the world’s problems. It’s not rational to think that way. But sport is a soft form of politics. It offers a diplomatic solution when often there isn’t one.

“At the Sydney Olympics, North and South Korea walked in together. I didn’t think I’d ever see that. There are a lot of negative things that can happen in sport. You see a lot of violence and things like that. But, sport, as a whole, really does unite us and brings us together.”

But this new high profile has also meant sportsmen have become role models and are no longer just ordinary members of society, something that worries Thorpe.

“There are certain things I’d like to do that I just don’t because I’d feel uncomfortable,” he admits. “I struggle to actually catch a train. It becomes people’s incursion on my private space and makes me uncomfortable. I’ve had stalkers and things like that, which has meant I’ve needed security.

“I could never have anticipated that when I got involved in sport. So that is a division between sportsmen and society that has been created by society not sportsmen.”

However, one thing Thorpe can still do whenever he wants to, is swim. “Where I live it’s easy to get into a pool,” he adds. “There are plenty of them and so I’ll just try to jump in and get out before many people know. I do not swim every day, only when I’m feeling stressed.”

And, although he retired aged 24 after the Athens Olympics, he has never felt the desire to return. “There’s always going to be part of me, until I am an old man, that has a desire to know what else could have happened. But I don’t feel I retired too early.”

And, every now and again, he thinks back to that day in New York — 11 September 2001 — when he went for a walk to the World Trade Center but decided not to go up to the top.

“I was in New York on a holiday and arrived the night before. So, I went for a jog early in the morning. I actually jogged downtown, literally got down to the World Trade Center in the morning before it happened. I had a coffee and then I walked back to my hotel. I walked into my room and there it was on television.”

The lucky escape has made him think every day of how life turns out.

“It’s whether or not you believe in fate,” he says. “Some things do happen. I am amazed I was in New York on that day and experienced that.

“I saw the very best and the very worst in humanity that day. It was like suddenly growing up and realising the world isn’t always a great place.”


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