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Reviews in review - Ian Thorpe: The biography, by Greg Hunter

Nov 10, 2014  - Nikki Dryden

Ian Thorpe: The biography

By Greg Hunter

404 pages, $USD48.37 hardcover

Macmillian by Pan Macmillian Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia, 2004

By Nikki Dryden

(SwimNews Nov-Dec 2005)


At first thought, one would hardly suppose that a former writer for Australian Penthouse magazine should be the man to pen Ian Thorpe’s biography. However, on further reflection, an Aussie sportswriter may not have been able to step outside the image of Ian Thorpe the swimmer. Greg Hunter’s description of Ian’s exploits in the pool are accurate enough to please any swimming junkie, but it is his depiction of Ian Thorpe the man, which prove he was a decent pick for the feat.

And a feat it is. At 404 pages, it is hard to remember that Ian Thorpe is only 22. Yet the book never slows, bridging from one swim to the next with stories of Thorpe’s rise to stardom and globe trotting adventures. Although young for a biography, the author notes with accuracy that the “Thorpean time-frame is different to everyone else’s,” suggesting that “no high-profile Australian Ian’s age has led a more unusual, more colourful, more intense existence.”

I began reading this biography shortly after returning from the IOC vote in Singapore for the 2012 Olympic Games. Ian was there, as was I, to support New York City’s vote. During the week I had the opportunity to spend some time speaking with Ian, not swimmer to swimmer or journalist to swimmer, as my other encounters had been, but person to person. What I discovered was that I was so affected by Ian the human being, that I have been raving about him ever since. Perhaps this can also be attributed to my reading of Hunter’s glowing tale of Thorpe, which while a bit overboard at times, makes me think that maybe the “Thorpemania” hype is right on target.   

It did feel a bit odd though, to read such intimate details about a person’s life. It seems that I know more about Ian Thorpe from reading this book than I do about some of my friends. This is, I suppose, our preoccupation with celebrity, but still an odd feeling. However, there were few insights into the unguarded Thorpe, despite all of the personal information. One of my favourite lines of Thorpe’s describes why he didn’t want to room with his good mate Michael Klim, despite their friendship, “The guy is a neat freak, it’s unbelievable. He’s so anal-he even packs my bags for me because he doesn’t like the way I fold my pants.” More of this would have been fun.

Thorpe’s battles with FINA make me like him even more. From the fight to wear his Adidas suit to his complaint that doping standards are insufficient, Ian seems to understand that his position requires such challenging. “Ian never minded getting under the skin of the FINA suits,” writes Hunter, “in fact, he saw it as his responsibility as a world-class senior swimmer…”

There are plenty of insights into what makes Thorpe the swimmer tick. Ian is adamant that he swims only against himself-never against the field. “I think it’s a limiting attitude to be competing against other people,” says Thorpe, “when you can be challenging yourself.” Later Hunter writes, “Ian has often said his performances all come down to interpretation, which is why he doesn’t really care how people rate them.”

The most noteworthy thing I learned as a swimmer was the way in which Hunter explains Thorpe’s failures. While few and far between, Ian does have moments when he is off his best, but because he is so far ahead, it seems acceptable to hear him reflect on why it happens. He touches on emotional issues like pressured situations, that average swimmers never have the luxury of discussing. He talks about being “sloppy and distracted” after the 200 free at Pan Pacs in ‘02 because there were rumors of him splitting with his coach. I always blamed my poor performances on physical problems or weakness, but Thorpe never does that even if he is ill. I don’t know if that is what makes him great, his ability to separate the mental and physical challenges, or if this is an absolution afforded to him because of his achievements.

The book touches on some of the controversies that have surrounded Thorpe, from suggestions he has used hGH to questions about his sexuality. It is unfortunate that these stories have invaded his life, as Thorpe is clearly a man above such fray. Hunter also seems intent on listing every famous person Ian has ever met, but for me the real juice comes in learning about Ian as a man, from his desire to help aboriginal children in Australia, to orphans in China, it is this side of Thorpe that elevates him beyond the label of swimmer or sportsman.

Part of this can be attributed to what I see as the genius of his agent, Dave Flaskas. Ian’s celebrity was not created overnight. While Ian began chalking up wins in the pool, behind the scenes Flaskas was building Ian’s opportunities and image in Japan (and now in China). So when Ian arrived in Japan at the 2001 World Champs, his face was plastered on billboards all over town and “Thorpemania” was in full swing. While endorsements were the objective, Ian embraced the Japanese culture behind the corporate dollars. Hunter writes that Flaskas’ believed his “responsibility was to ensure Ian enjoyed his life as much as possible. That had more to do with the unique experiences his celebrity afforded than it did with money.” Flaskas seems to have balanced both objectives well, benefiting his athlete on a much more holistic level.

My only real complaint is Hunter’s inability to levy due praise for other great athletes. He often composes a congratulatory sentence about an athlete’s success, only to follow it with an opinionated jib that goes against the very nature of the Thorpe he is trying to portray. He is quick to remind us of David Beckham’s misfortune, that Grant Hackett is a “big boofy bloke, relaxed and uncomplicated,” that Anthony Ervin is a “crack,” that Michael Phelps is a “brash kid from a small blue-collar mill town,” and he even calls Pieter van den Hoogenband’s holding up of Ian’s arm after losing the 200 free at the 2001 World’s as, an “ostentatious gesture.” Yet never an ill word is said of Ian himself. While he acknowledges Ian’s few shortcomings (his acting ability on the Aussie TV show Undercover Angels) or his self-proclaimed failings (a lackluster speech for the Jesse Owen’s award) he never criticizes Thorpe outright the way he easily does of other athletes.

Hunter also demeans some swimming moments, which seems out of character for Ian. Once when Thorpe is beaten at the Australian short course champs by Hackett in the 200 free, the writer refers to it as “insignificant.” Later he refers to Ian’s reasoning for his sortie into the 100 back at the 2002 Commonwealths for its “novelty value.” I hardly think Thorpe himself would consider any race in these ways, at the very least because he surely takes more pride in his swimming than that.

Perhaps this is the “Aussie way,” but Thorpe just does not seem the kind of man to do this. He always takes the high road, constantly refers to his competitors as friends, and always gives credit to those who deserve it. It seems contradictory to Thorpe’s persona to have this tone permeate the book, and after a few hundred pages of it, it gets really old.

Despite this digressive tendency, I loved this book, not only for the impressiveness of its subject, but for the Aussie slang and swimming insights. If you think you know Ian Thorpe, buy this book and think again. 

Ian Thorpe: the biography can be purchased online at www.amazon.com