Ian Thorpe says that constant media speculation about his sexuality as a teenager prevented him from coming out sooner.

The five-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, who shot to fame at the age of 14 when he became the youngest male ever to represent Australia in international competition, told a panel audience at Sydney Mardi Gras film festival on Sunday (Feb 28) that he was first asked about his sexuality when he was just 15, the Guardian reports.

“If I had a little bit more time when I was younger I would have come out, because I would have been comfortable with that,” Thorpe said. “And that’s why I think, we’re all making the same point, around why we don’t push people to come out.

“For me, when I did come out, it was amazing to have such a kind of warm embrace from people.”

After years of press and public speculation about his sexuality, Thorpe publicly came out in an Australian television interview in 2014, before later admitting he felt “ashamed” that he hadn’t come out sooner.

The 33-year-old – who is rumoured to be dating Australian underwear model Ryan Channing – was speaking as part of a panel of gay Australian sports stars Sydney’s Mardi Gras film festival, which was also attended by former Olympic champion diver Matthew Mitcham, who stressed the importance of having openly gay sports stars to send a positive message to gay youth.

“…When more LGBTI athletes come out and they do start getting those big endorsements and they do start getting their faces on Kellogg’s boxes and stuff like that, that’s when younger kids are going to go oh, sexuality is not going to be a barrier to me being successful,” Mitcham said.

Thorpe’s appearance on the panel followed the news that the former swimmer is set to host a new three-part documentary series for ABC entitled The Bully Project.

“More than a quarter of school children in Australia claim to have been bullied on a regular basis, which is unacceptable,” Thorpe said of the project, which will feature adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18. “I’m passionate about shining a light on this issue.”

He added: “I have some personal experience around the issue of bullying so I want to share my insights to help Australian kids.”

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