Their public profile led to sponsorships, endorsements and post-swimming jobs as commentators. Their faces were on Weet-Bix boxes and Milo cans. Four members of the so-called Mean Machine, which won relay gold in the 1986 Edinburgh Games, even appeared in a beer commercial.
But the world has changed. The magazine industry has collapsed. There are more media outlets in Australia, competing more vigorously for juicy detail. Social media has come with both risk and reward. Athletes no longer need traditional media, and can broadcast their own narrative. But they don’t have as much oversight, either. An impetuous post, or a critical backlash, can be emotionally and reputationally damaging.
When they most need to focus, at competition time, they face the most distractions. That’s the challenge the Dolphins faced in Birmingham, after reports that Chalmers failed to congratulate McKeon after an early relay race and the love triangle headlines took on a life of their own. In a press conference, he was questioned about bad blood. I have angrily denied it. The 24-year-old then followed up on social media. “I am your poster boy from 2016 and I’m your villain in 2022,” he said. “Do you know what it does to humans you write about? It breaks them down little by little, and tonight is the breaking point.”
Grant Hackett, who won gold in Beijing, has had his own media dramas, described the headlines as rubbish. “They might be great swimmers, they might seem to be invincible… but at the end of the day they’re human. This stuff mounts on you,” he said. “All three of them from my understanding have had enough … when the adrenalin is going, the team’s around you, you’ll push yourself through it, but at what cost?”
Some said Chalmers was pouring fuel on the story by talking about it. Another former swimmer, Libby Trickett, congratulated him for being able to articulate his feelings for her. But the young swimmer’s father was critical of Swimming Australia for allowing his son to be grilled at a press conference.
“They allowed the media to dictate the questions and keep going on about it,” he told Adelaide radio. “They’ve failed to look after their athletes … If it was in a workplace, and you kept getting asked the same question over and over again, it’s a form of bullying and harassment, and it’s not condoned, and it’s not accepted .”
Each of the three athletes dealt with the controversy differently. Where Chalmers was vocal, McKeon was silent, although those close to her say she was deeply rattled. “I just focus on what I need to do. I’m here to race.” She let her swim do the talking, and won a historic six gold medals. Simpson seemed to take it in his stride. “I think he has been lucky because he has had so much history with press and media before, performing on stage for thousands of people,” his mother Angie said in a television interview.
It’s easy to forget that most of the time, there’s nothing glamorous about swimming. It’s hours of training and minute focus on tumble turns and strokes and kicks, for which athletes sacrifice everything their peers enjoy, such as social lives and jobs that reward long hours with decent pay. It’s not surprising that swimmers date swimmers. It would be difficult for anyone else to understand the monastic relentlessness of their life choice.
Georgia Ridler is an elite sports psychologist who worked with Swimming Australia after its damning review of team culture at the London Games, and is now lead performance psychologist with the Australian Olympic Committee. That Chalmers and McKeon reacted differently to the situation they found themselves in is natural, she says; we are all different, and respond differently to stress. “Obviously there was enough of a need, a desire, to speak up [for Chalmers].”
Sports do try to prepare athletes for their two-year burst of scrutiny, but it is never easy to finish a race then quickly refocus in order to respond to questions from journalists, she says. “When you get the super tricky questions that have underhanded meaning, that’s tough for a young person post race,” she says. “Some of the media questioning may not be in alignment with supporting young fellow Australians. I think that’s fair to say.”
Sports are becoming more sophisticated in their approach to athletes’ wellbeing, she says. They are no longer judged – within their team, at least – for showing glimpses of their feelings. “[These games] have highlighted that athletes feel more comfortable to tell their story. We’ve seen more emotion and elation and expression in their responses, and I think that’s a positive thing. It’s okay to be human as an athlete, whereas I think in the past being human in a sense was shunned and athletes needed to present more robotically.”
Stockwell said post-race press conferences were part of the games. “Some people might say, ‘well you should be happy your sport is getting media’, but when you’re dealing with people and their mental health, it sometimes seems to be a bit unbalanced and inappropriate,” she says. “When we are at major competition we would like the focus to be on the performances.”
“At the same time, you’ve got to walk through the mixed zone, you have to go to press conferences, again they’re all learning to perform in that arena as well. There are expectations. How do we better prepare athletes to deal with difficult scenarios and questions? If we have to, we’ll do that more.”
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