Five-time Olympic freestyle champion Ian Thorpe told the audience at the heavily branded Virgin Blue press conference in which he officially announced his return to swimming yesterday that his decision was not financially driven.

“I’m not motivated by money, if I was I would not have stopped swimming,” he said. That didn’t deter some members of the pubic from dismissing the comeback as merely as a dash for cash.

But Virgin Blue group executive, Danielle Keighery, has denied rumours Thorpe will be paid a whopping seven-figure sum.

“Nothing even close to a seven-figure sum for the two year deal,” Keighery told Crikey. “At end of the day there are far easier ways to make money.”

Ms Keighery said Thorpe approached Virgin Blue five months ago to ask for support to fund his coaching and nutrition requirements after he decided to return to the pool.

Keighery told Crikey Thorpe’s return to competitive swimming will bring enormous value to the company.

“I think the value we will be get from Ian will be enormous,” she said. “In terms of what he is worth, he is one of the most loved Australians, what he has achieved in his lifetime is incredible…For us to be associated with not only a sports star but his image and profile is fantastic.”

Professor David Shilbury, Director of Sport Management at Deakin University, said there is “some truth behind reports” Thorpe’s return is financially driven.

“It’s a wonderful promotional opportunity for Thorpe and the sponsors,” he told Crikey. “Elite athletes never lose their competitive spirit but equally there are other benefits he can acquire by exercising his athletic skills.”

Ian Smith, partner at corporate advisory firm, Bespoke Approach, said Thorpe has set himself up for one of two options: “…a return of heroic proportions, or a return that ends with him being more than a tad humiliated,” he told Crikey.

Smith said Virgin’s money is not in Thorpe’s success in the Olympics, but rather his preparation over the next 12 months.

“[Virgin Blue] will be banking more on the coverage of his efforts over the next 12 months, particularly his preparation and the various lead-up events in which he enters.”

Yesterday’s announcement sparked numerous outbursts on social media platforms criticising Virgin Blue’s CEO, John Borghetti’s performance.

The former Qantas executive wrapped up Virgin’s big moment by handing over to “the man that will win many, many gold medals for Qantas.”

But despite the criticism, Ms Keighery said any Aussies critical of Thorpe  needed a wake-up call.

“Anyone giving a young Olympian beef for wanting to compete for Australia needs to ask themselves a question,” she told Crikey.

She criticised the coverage of the event and said media representations were “unfair”. “The Australian press is going to be eating their hats when they look at Thorpe on the podium,” she said.

Smith noted the pressure behind Thorpe’s success in the 2012 London Olympics will be huge and said US swimming legend Mark Spitz’s recent words ring true.

“I suppose there may be some nervousness that he doesn’t break down like a horse coming back from a long spell,” Smith said. “Ultimately Mark Spitz says what many would be thinking: ‘My only question is, what is his motivation? Is it to satisfy sponsors? If he is doing it for the right reasons then he has a very good chance of being successful’.”

Back in 2006, the year of his retirement, BRW Magazine estimated Thorpe’s gross annual income at $2.5 million.

Virgin Blue would not disclose the exact figures of Thorpe’s two-year deal with the company, but said they believed he was an “investment” to the company.

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