Champion swimmer Ian Thorpe has denied his return to competitive swimming is being driven by money, but there is no denying at least one of his business interests has struggled since the swimmer went into retirement in 2006.

Thorpedo Foods, a joint venture between Thorpe and listed food and beverage maker Freedom Nutritional Products, produces a range of low GI sports drinks, many of which are sold into the Japanese market via a licensing agreement with Yakult Honsha.

The company, set up in May 2004, just before Thorpe swam at his last major meet at the Athens Olympics, was established to sell beverages and seafood, but now concentrates on sports drinks.

However, the venture has struggled in recent years, with revenue falling sharply.

Thorpedo Foods’ total revenue in the 2005-06 financial year was just under $3 million, but by 2008 this had fallen to $1.8 million.

The past two years have been even worse. In its 2009-10 annual report, Freedom Nutritional Products reported that revenue at Thorpedo Foods had shrunk to just $552,000, down from $1.03 million in 2008-09.

Commentary about the division was limited.

“Yakult Honsha, our licensee, continues to support the Thorpedo beverage portfolio in Japan with regular promotional visits by Ian Thorpe,” the company said in its annual report.

However, Freedom also revealed that it has increased its ownership of the joint venture in September 2009 to 75% after exercising an option to buy another 25% of the business from Thorpe. The cost of exercising the option was just $60.

Freedom had purchased another 25% of the business in June 2005 for $20.

Freedom was contacted for comment this morning but a spokesperson was unavailable before publication.

However, there is little doubt the company will be hoping for a sales boost from Thorpe’s return.

At yesterday’s press conference — which was dominated by promotional material for Virgin Blue — Thorpe denied financial pressures had forced him back to the pool.

”I’m not motivated by money, if I was I would not have stopped swimming,” he said.

“Especially going through the amount of training that I have of late, my drive is for performance and that’s it, that’s how it works.”

Back in 2006, BRW Magazine estimated Thorpe’s gross annual income at $2.5 million, although this will have fallen sharply during his retirement.

His current sponsors include Adidas, Audi, Yakult and watchmaker TW Steel.

*This first appeared on SmartCompany.