Ian Thorpe is Australia’s greatest ever Olympic swimmer and one of the country’s most talked-about openly gay men – but that didn’t stop the five-time gold medalist from falling victim to a shocking homophobic attack in Sydney.
Thorpe, who broke a record when he represented Australia in the pool at just 14 years old, now lives in Poland, where he is working on an educational program about the Holocaust called March of the Living.
He spoke Mornings with Neil Mitchell on 3AW about the shocking bigotry he endured.
“In Australia I experienced homophobia, I experienced it before I came out and I also experienced it when I came out,” he said.
“When I was younger, before I came out, people called me the F word.
“It’s really hurtful no matter how you are.
Thorpe shows off one of his five Olympic gold medals, this one for the 400 meters at the Sydney Games. He has admitted to homophobic attacks both before and after coming out
Thorpe (pictured at the 2004 Athens Olympics) is now running an educational program about the Holocaust called March of the Living in Poland
“I just don’t think it’s necessary. We’re in the 21st century and it’s that question we’re asking, can’t we respect what can be a little bit different and that we’re all human.”
Thorpe spoke of a particularly shocking incident that occurred in Sydney in recent years when he traveled on a ride-share service with his partner.
“When I had been outside, I really experienced it in the back of a car. It was an Uber, I can say that, and it was with someone who was my partner at the time,” he said.
“I was actually told I was disgusting.
And they used my name that was on my account with that company, it’s not my real first name, they used my full name.
“I got out of the car and thought, ‘Am I freaking out about this?’
‘Actually, it was about nothing. First, the driver should have been paying attention to the road and the fact that I was holding someone’s hand shouldn’t have mattered.
“In the end I told them to pull the car over now.
‘This was probably the most liberal area in Sydney. So if it happens to me, it means it can happen to anyone.’
Thorpe, wearing a ‘Yes’ shirt in support of marriage equality, takes part in the Doggywood Pageant dog show as part of Sydney WorldPride 2023 show day in Sydney
Thorpe said the world has come a long way and achieved great things in terms of inclusion, especially with Australia’s recent same-sex marriage referendum.
But there was still an alarming minority who were aggressively homophobic.
‘You know what? We’ve come a long way,’ Thorpe said.
‘But there is more to do.
“So if you want some statistics – and I like statistics – in 2004 in terms of support for marriage equality in Australia, it was about 35 per cent.
“When it came to the vote… that number had even doubled.
So that’s what can happen with a little over a decade of change.
“But there are still some frightening statistics and they’re not exclusive to Australia, they’re the same in the UK and the US.
“The percentage of the population that believes that gays and dare I say they feel the same way about Jewish people…that we really should be locked up or killed.”
Thorpe speaking at Sydney WorldPride 2023. He has also spoken about transgender athletes, as he believes more research is needed to ensure a fair and level playing field
Transgender athlete Lexi Rodgers was banned from the WNBL1 women’s league by Basketball Australia on Tuesday. She has vowed to fight the decision
Thorpe was also asked about the issue of transgender discrimination, particularly in sport, on the day transgender basketball player Lexi Rodgers was blocked from playing at the elite level in Australia.
He has called for more research to ensure that all athletes can be included on a fair and level playing field.
“Around the world, including in Australia, transgender people are among the most discriminated against in any country,” he said.
“It’s weaponized, we’ve seen it mostly in the US, but we saw that in Australia with transgender people as well.
We also talk about it in sports. There’s a lot of debate in the sport… Where we stand scientifically, because I’m for equality, but I’m also for fairness.
“If someone tells you there’s no fairness when it comes to transgender people, they haven’t done enough research.
“We don’t really know what would mean having a level playing field for someone who was born biologically female against someone who was technically born biologically male.
“There’s a lot of confusion about the difference between sex and genitals.”