It hurts that people don't believe me

I break the news to Ian Thorpe that, just a few minutes before we meet, the Australians have finally won another gold. What event, he asks. "Oh, some kayak or canoe thing," I say. "Don't say it like that! It's an Olympic gold medal. We don't throw these away lightly. Some kayaker or canoer has trained all their life for this moment."

Up until the kayak moment, Thorpe had won more golds in his career than his entire nation had managed at London 2012.

It was his medal success that attracted the BBC, who hired him as a swimming pundit. But it has been his gentle admonishments and thoughtful insights into the despair and ecstasy of sport that have won over viewers.

So, what is it like winning gold? He pauses for about 20 seconds, while his eyes moisten, with what looks like pain. "Imagine winning the lottery, but working for it." Another long pause. "That's the closest I can explain; so the joy of something like that, the 'I can't believe it's happened to me' but knowing that you've put in every single piece of work."

Thorpe became compelling viewing as the Games progressed, with many viewers tuning in to see whether he would punch former England soccer star Gary Lineker for asking another inane question.

He insists the two of them got on well. "I think everyone thinks that we don't like each other and it's not the case."

Most former sports stars take a while to bed down. Thorpe looks like he has been broadcasting all his life.

He refused to give pat answers. Once he tried to explain the pain swimmers felt in the final stretch, and you could see him physically wince at the memory.

He had a nice line in dry wit, too. When some of his fellow pundits were discussing "unlucky" lane five, he deadpanned: "There is water in every lane, so it is OK."

Most of the chatter Thorpe has generated has been about his looks. He is grippingly attractive: 196 centimetres, precise stubble, flawless skin, hazel eyes and languid legs, which during our interview he frequently folds, as if he is trying to get a pop-up tent back into its box, manually lifting each limb and rearranging it so his size 17 feet don't bump into the table.

More than anything, the comments have been about his wardrobe which, as one wag quipped, made him look like "a fawn who has run startled through Topshop". He has rejected the usual sports commentator outfit of open-neck pale-blue shirt for a selection of ever more avant garde knitwear, plunging necklines and asymmetrical patterns.

It is all Armani. He insists he has no commercial tie-up with the company, merely that he is a good friend of the Italian designer. "I know exactly how it is going to fit. It's really that simple."

For our interview, he is wearing a particularly natty pair of houndstooth trousers, tight at the ankles but baggy at the top, a sort of Sherlock Holmes harem pants. "They are my pants. Look, this isn't a fashion thing. It's a style. I like the style."

While his swimming comeback didn't deliver an Olympic team berth, Thorpe has rediscovered his love for the sport. "When I swim now, I swim like I am a child."

He may be getting better, but so too are his opponents. If he does have to bow out he has a wide, and eclectic, range of interests to hold his attention. These stretch from his obsession with gardening – he waxes at length about the beauty of his Dracaena draco plant at his Sydney home – to cooking; a youth charity that has brought him into the sphere of the Duke of Cambridge (he was a guest at the royal wedding, but "We're not buddy buddies"); and various business interests.

The only time he snaps is when I suggest his commercial ventures have not been successful. "That's not true. Some of the things went really well, some didn't go so well. I have one of the highest-selling sports drinks in Japan."

Over the next few months his focus will be on finishing his autobiography, which he promises will not be the usual ex-sportsman's yawnfest. "There's more than one revelation."

What could it possibly be? The night before this interview his agent rings me up and, out of the blue, says: "The one thing you can't ask him about is his sexuality." I had no intention of doing so, but now that he's made it an issue, I am intrigued.

Thorpe is not homosexual, I am assured, but this will not stop people on the internet speculating about his svelte looks, cultured interests and friendships.

"I tick all the boxes," he admits. "There is no way I can answer this. It really has just got to the stage when I say 'whatever'. It's not a big deal for me. It doesn't impact on my life what people think.

"What I don't like about it is that people think I'm being dishonest. That's what's so hurtful in all of this. I don't live my life as an open book, but what I do say, I don't retract. That is me."

One thing he does tackle is the embarrassing inappropriateness of discovering he was a gay icon at the age of 15, and having to handle the difficulties of fame.

He has watched the crushing pressure being exerted on British Olympic stars and marvelled at their ability to handle it.

At 17 Thorpe had his face splashed across every billboard, front page and television screen in the run-up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

"You realise the enormity of the situation . . . and you feel the relief when you actually deliver."

Telegraph, London

The story It hurts that people don't believe me first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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