Ian Thorpe: Battles bullies
When the opportunity to help bullied schoolchildren arose, former swim star Ian Thorpe dived right in, writes HOLLY BYRNES
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.”
TUESDAY, 8.30PM, ABC