Jul 26, 2012; London, United Kingdom; Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe smiles during a press conference one day before the London 2012 Olympic Games at Westfield Shopping Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports | Rob Shumacher-USA TODAY

Ian Thorpe didn’t quite know what to think when a reporter asked him if he were gay. The soon-to-be Olympic swimmer was only 16 at the time in the late Nineties, and his home country of Australia would be hosting their first Summer Olympic Games — with him tapped as a potential star — in a couple years.

Thorpe said he was not gay that day, opening up about the incident now decades later in an article for the Daily Telegraph and saying that he didn’t want news of him being gay to be any kind of “distraction” heading into those important Olympics.

“If someone had asked that question to a child right now, they would actually lose their job,” Thorpe said. “This conversation has changed, and people’s attitudes as well.”

He also gave some real insight into his own thinking about waiting until after retirement to come out publicly.

“When we look at different sports, and especially olympic sports, this is the only time where some sports will actually have coverage in the press,” Thorpe said in a video accompanying the Daily Telegraph article. “Someone does not want their identity to be what the article is about, they want to talk about their sport.”

That may be why most athletes don’t come out days before a major competition, but as he pointed out himself, there were at least 186 publicly out athletes at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021. Obviously plenty of Olympic-sport athletes have no problem being out.

It was to help athletes like these be their true selves that he shared publicly his own journey for the first time, in 2014.

“I am telling the world that I am gay,” he said at the time, “and I hope this makes it easier for others now, and even if you’ve held it in for years, it feels easier to get it out.”

Thorpe seemed to express regret that he hadn’t followed that path and come out sooner.

He had an exceptional career in the pool, winning nine Olympic medals including five golds.

Today he’s still active in the LGBTQ community, and the interview with the Daily Telegraph was in part to raise awareness for Qtopia in Sydney, a new centre for LGBTQ history and culture that claims it’s the largest in the world.

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