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Act 2, Sc 2: Thorpe Carries Commercial Can

Feb 3, 2011  - Craig Lord

The headline count around the world (more than 1,000 with the word Thorpe in them in the past 24 hours) will doubtless confirm to the airline sponsoring Ian Thorpe's comeback that they've backed a winner. 

Grant Hackett was among those left wondering yesterday in terms of the tone set by a comeback career launched on the wings of Virgin Blue, with the swimmer's training location dictated by a commercial venture and timed to coincide with the first flight of said carrier to Abu Dhabi. 

"I'm shaking my head trying to work out why you wouldn't want the creature comforts of home surrounded by your family and friends,'' Hackett told Jim Wilson at the Australian Telegraph. "I think they're all so important, especially for Ian, who's coming from a long way back to get to the Olympics. Moving your training base to Abu Dhabi is a strange decision."

After Thorpey had taken his first public dip after three months of secret sessions at eight different pools, the term 'decision' looked relative. Thorpe will be aboard Virgin's inaugural flight from Australia to Abu Dhabi in late February. Yesterday he did his PR job well, making many a mention of the Gulf state that entered the swimming history book on a dark note last year when US marathon swimmer Fran Crippen died in offshore waters in a FINA 10km race that has prompted two enquiries, both expected to report next month at the earliest. UAE also hosted a world titles event in the race pool (25m) for the first time.

Regardless of announcements yesterday, however, Thorpe's training plans are up in the air, says Australia head coach Leigh Nugent. "He's going to fly over there on the 24th of February, whether he flies straight back or not I don't know," Nugent told reporters after Thorpe's first second-time-round training session in the full glare of media.

"Abu Dhabi is a place that Ian wants to go and do some work. We don't know what the ultimate involvement will be there yet, we haven't set that plan. It's just one of the locations he's thinking about going to."

The former coaches of Alex Popov and Pieter van den Hoogenband - Gennadi Touretski and Jacco Verhaeren - have been cited in speculative reports as potential mentors for a UAE and Europe-based training mission but there are no agreements in place. Nugent noted: "Ian is really looking forward to swimming with another group of athletes ... and he's been very thirsty for feedback from coaches."

Beyond the why and where of it all, big names from the swim world weighed in to say they believe Thorpe will be a strong competitive force. 

Hackett told Wilson: "He's a freak and you never doubt Ian as he's a very gifted athlete with so much talent and a medal is a real possibility. I don't know if he can win a gold medal, but he's a guy who raised the bar not just once but throughout his career. Certainly his presence in our relay squads will be a huge boost.''

Bob Bowman, coach to Michael Phelps, told Nicole Jeffery at The Australian: "I don't think age is a factor, I think the timeframe was a factor, but I think he's very realistic about what he can do. Without the suit, I think he will have to adjust his stroke as we have all had to, but I think he can be competitive, for sure and more so without the suit."

Bowman told SwimNews that Phelps was very happy when he heard the news. It had come of no surprise and swimmer and coach had spoken about the possibility with relish ever since rumours of a comeback first surfaced. Phelps and motivation, an important equation. Did this twist in the tale help? "It doesn't hurt," said Bowman. "It's another carrot out there..." More from Bowman a little later on.

Bowman and Phelps are among those who can appreciate the commercial side of success more than most. Thorpey's announcement coincided with Phelps' plunge into the games world. Take a look at this cool challenge.

Nugent's take on Thorpe's chances in the real race pool: “If he puts his mind to it and doesn’t have any injury concerns along the way and is able to train at the level he needs to train at, for a sustained period of time, I would think the 200m (individually) certainly could be in the picture for him. But Ian would certainly have to change the way he races compared to how he used to race. Underwater skills are absolutely vital so he would need to focus a lot on that, not to maintain an advantage, just to keep on a par.”

The focus in Australia today is also on the tone of the comeback and the weighty commercial nature of an announcement made not by Thorpe or Swimming Australia but by a man in a suit who was unsure which airline he actually worked for.

One of the many critical tweets from Thorpe followers summed up the mood nicely with this: "Is Ian Thorpe swimming for Australia or Virgin Blue?'' 

Marketing and sponsorship experts have also questioned the manner in which Thorpe allowed his new sponsor to overwhelm the announcement compared with his previously adept handing of sponsorship deals.

Former Olympian David Culbert, a sports broadcaster and sports marketing and sponsorship expert, told The Australian that the way in which events unfolded had left viewers wondering: "I don't think today's activity is going to help him. It was bordering on being crass.''

Thorpe earned Aus$2.5 million according to rich lists published in the year of his retirement. His public profile and earning power waned during the time he was away working on his Fountain of Youth, personal projects and studying, though Andrew Green, managing director of Sweeney Sports, told The Australian that Thorpe remains in the top 10 of sports earners Down Under.

David Flaskas, Thorpe's manager, admitted it would have been better if Thorpe rather than a Virgin spokesman had made the announcement. No wonder: Virgin Blue’s chief executive John Borghetti made a formidable faux pas when introducing Thorpe yesterday, saying that the swimmer would win a lot of gold medals for "Qantas". Borghetti was formerly head of Qantas Airways. Oops.

No doubting the value of the asset bought by the airline, however. Hard to find a publication in Europe this morning that does not carry a headline on the biggest comeback in the race pool. A quick trawl of databases shows 52 headlines in French newspapers today, Yannick Agnel among those in the Thorpedo's firing line (and vice versa), while every British national paper makes mention of the fact that it was a visit to the London 2012 pool construction site last autumn in the company of Lord Coe that whetted the former 200m and 400m freestyle world record holder's appetite for the chase and race.