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Friday, 20 July, 2001, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
The Australian making a splash in Japan
Ian Thorpe
The "Thorpedo" training in Japan
By Guy de Launey in Fukuoka

At the swimming world championships in Fukuoka, Japan, Australia's Ian Thorpe is a celebrity inside and outside the pool.

In fact, the whole of Japan seems to want a piece of him.

And come Sunday, Fukuoka will feel the full force of Thorpemania.


His big feet, his good looks and his great ability all get a lot of attention

Hiroyuki Inoue, swimming teacher
Ian Thorpe was one of the major stars of last year's Olympics. Not surprising when you consider that swimming is a great Australian passion, and the games took place in Sydney.

But Thorpe's popularity has travelled much further than his own backyard. The man they call the Thorpedo is now the biggest foreign celebrity in Japan.

Local support has been so overwhelming that Thorpe now has half a dozen personal bodyguards to keep the crowds at bay.

World number one

As far as many children in Tokyo are concerned, Ian Thorpe is the world's number one sportsman. It is unusual for a swimmer - particularly a non-Japanese swimmer - to make such an impact. But the club's teacher, Hiroyuki Inoue, says Thorpe is a special case.

"Children do not usually know the name of an overseas swimmer, but in Ian Thorpe's case, his big feet, his good looks and his great ability all get a lot of attention," he said.

Japanese girls
Swimmers do not usually have such an impact on Japanese children
You would expect fans of swimming to know all about Ian Thorpe. After all, he is the world record holder for the 200, 400 and 800m freestyle, and this time round he is taking on the 100m as well - plus the relay races.

But something about Thorpe has struck a chord with people who could not normally care less about water sports.

Perhaps it is the size 17 feet. Maybe it is a maturity and amiability that is unusual in any 18-year-old, let alone a multiple world and Olympic champion.

Or it could be the gigantic posters of Thorpe plastered all over Japan.

The end result is that Thorpe is at risk of being mobbed every time he sets foot outside his hotel. But like everything else in his life, he seems to take it in his stride.

"I don't know how you respond to it," he said. "It's something that you have to accept to be part of what happens here.

"Obviously it's fantastic to see that kind of success. At times it can be difficult, but you learn how to deal with it and accept it, and not to use it as an excuse."

Private life


At times it can be difficult, but you learn how to deal with it and accept it, and not to use it as an excuse

Ian Thorpe on his fame
Thorpe seems almost too good to be true. I thought perhaps that behind closed doors, he would turn into a prima donna, or that his team-mates would resent his popularity. But it seems there are no skeletons in the closet.

"Ian's the star of the team and Japan, so he gets held up in a lot of places when he goes out," said Michael Klim, Thorpe's team-mate and another multiple world champion.

"When it comes to the sport, he's obviously very level-headed. He knows exactly what he wants, and he's very professional.

"But he's still the average 18-year-old, who likes to jokes around - that's just the part we don't see."

Ian Thorpe is arguably the best swimmer in the world - and could easily become the greatest of all time. On Sunday, he will be going for the first two of a possible six gold medals.

And you can bet that all of Fukuoka will be roaring him on.

See also:

13 Jul 00 | SOL
08 Jun 01 | Other Sports
05 Dec 00 | Other Sports
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