Ian Thorpe: Bat­tles bul­lies

When the op­por­tu­nity to help bul­lied schoolchil­dren arose, for­mer swim star Ian Thorpe dived right in, writes HOLLY BYRNES

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - NEWS -

FIND­ING a place and pur­pose out of a swim­ming pool has not been an easy ex­pe­ri­ence for Ian Thorpe.

An Olympic and world cham­pion he may be, but em­brac­ing the spot­light which has fol­lowed the now-34-year-old since he first showed such ex­cep­tional tal­ent as a teenager was, he says, mostly fraught.

It’s a com­mon iden­tity chal­lenge for ex-ath­letes, with many – such as for­mer team­mate Grant Hack­ett – of­ten los­ing their way.

But a left-field op­por­tu­nity to be an ad­vo­cate for vul­ner­a­ble schoolchil­dren, in the ABC’s new fac­tual se­ries

Bul­lied, has given Thorpe not only an un­ex­pected ca­reer plat­form; it has turned his frac­tious re­la­tion­ship with celebrity into a pos­i­tive force for change.

As pre­sen­ter of the twopart doc­u­men­tary, Thorpe in­tro­duces him­self as an ar­tic­u­late pre­sen­ter, as well as a pow­er­ful cham­pion for the those who signed up for his help to over­come the so­cial iso­la­tion and dan­ger­ous im­pact Aus­tralia’s bul­ly­ing epi­demic is hav­ing.

In the first episode, view­ers meet Queens­land teen Kelsey – re­duced to lim­it­ing his con­tact hours in class and con­fined to a school of­fice in meal breaks, af­ter years of re­lent­less ver­bal and phys­i­cal abuse.

The kid is like many around the coun­try, pushed to the brink by daily in­sults and on­line at­tacks; re­coil­ing from life and, as Thorpe ar­gues, “his right to an ed­u­ca­tion”.

While the swim star might ar­rive at the teenager’s home as “that Ian Thorpe”, he quickly wins the trust of the boy and his fam­ily. What hap­pens next is a grave risk: fit­ted with a hid­den cam­era in his back­pack, Kelsey films the abuse his teach­ers have been pow­er­less to stop.

The state’s pri­vacy laws al­lowed for the sur­veil­lance, but anx­i­ety on the part of the Queens­land ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment, the school prin­ci­pal and teach­ers in­volved means no adult in a po­si­tion of author­ity in Kelsey’s case ap­pears on cam­era.

A group of his class­mates agree to see the footage and, when con­fronted with the truth about his sit­u­a­tion, end up in tears. Thorpe in­sists child wel­fare was al­ways at the heart of the so­cial ex­per­i­ment, over­seen by a team of counsellors and be­havioural ex­pert Pro­fes­sor Mar­i­lyn Camp­bell.

While he re­mains a tow­er­ing fig­ure, it is how in­vested and im­pas­sioned Thorpe is which has im­pact; en­cour­ag­ing the kids to find solutions to the prob­lem.

The process, filmed over six months, has vis­i­bly af­fected the re­tired ath­lete, but also em­pow­ered him.

“I knew I’d care about the kids, I just didn’t know that I’d end up feel­ing so per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble,” he says. “I would be­come so frus­trated when things weren’t hap­pen­ing and a child was so vul­ner­a­ble. It’s been in­cred­i­bly in­tense, but it’s im­por­tant – and just be­cause some­thing’s hard doesn’t mean you should shy away from it.”

That said, Thorpe was quick to add: “I’ll be happy to take a break when this fin­ishes. It’s made me quite re­flec­tive about what you can do and how you can play a role in help­ing peo­ple. I love that my voice is able to be used for those who strug­gle to be heard … that I’ve helped. I’ve en­joyed that part of it … us­ing, I guess, my fame in that way is fan­tas­tic.”

BUL­LIED

TUES­DAY, 8.30PM, ABC

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