Winning is a powerful tonic. The fissures within many a sporting team have been healed by victory; fatigue, fatigue and past failures all soothed by the balm of success. When Kyle Chalmers stormed to the 100m freestyle gold medal at the Commonwealth Games on Monday night, his triumph offered him relief and vindication. As he brought a finger to his lips from him in a pre-meditated gesture, it was clear that Chalmers wanted to silence his critics from him.
If only it was so simple. Chalmers’ gold medal – his first individual success in the frenetic 100m freestyle since becoming Olympic champion as an unheralded teenager in 2016 – offers a potent riposte after the media storm of recent days. Taking to Instagram after the win, I posted: “A million things I could say, but this photo sums them all up and says it perfectly.” But the fall-out from this saga may only just be beginning.
Clouds began to form in May, when Chalmers beat Cody Simpson – the swimmer turned pop star turned swimmer again, who now dates Emma McKeon after her split from Chalmers last year – in the 100m butterfly at the national championships, a selection event for the world championships and Commonwealth Games. Chalmers had considered missing the world titles, which would have allowed Simpson to take his spot from him, but ultimately elected to contest both international meets.
Chalmers qualified faster, so this was very much his prerogative. But some sections of the media, led by News Corp titles, manufactured a “love triangle” and implied that Chalmers was the villain. Chalmers was set to “destroy” Simpson’s dreams; his decision was “brutal”. The coverage had a negative effect on Chalmers, who went to ground and issued a statement decrying the “massive toll” the furore was having on him.
In Birmingham, it went from bad to worse. The degree of celebration between Chalmers and McKeon after the pair won gold together in a mixed relay was dissected, and there was a suggestion the freestyle specialist had snubbed his ex. When Chalmers went on the attack, criticizing the media for focusing on his personal life rather than his swimming, sections of the press doubled down.
Viewed from a distance, the saga has been absurd. There is no public interest in invasive coverage of the private lives of these swimmers.
And it is having all too real consequences. Chalmers has spoken openly about the impact of the drama on his mental health, saying his wellbeing was at “rock bottom”. At one point I have decried the ongoing controversy as the “hardest 12 hours in my sporting career”. He has spoken of his mother crying on FaceTime from the other side of the world; his father broke down on radio, telling Mix 102.3 “it’s a form of bullying and harassment, these people get away with it, they destroy people’s lives”.
At its best, sports media can relay the joy of elite competition to the community and shine a light on corruption and abuse within powerful institutions. Sports journalists should never be afraid to ask tough questions. If this saga involved Chalmers disliking questions about poor performances, say, or misconduct within the camp (something hardly foreign to Swimming Australia), there would be no sympathy. Those are questions journalists are entitled to ask – even if the recipient may not like hearing them. But this is not that.
There has been an element of goading in the way Chalmers has been interrogated about his personal life, regardless of the impact this is having on his mental health. It may be an enticing narrative to paint the macho, tattooed swimmer as the bad guy – and it no doubt gets plenty of online traffic – but it is actively undermining at least one athlete’s wellbeing.
The continued pile-on even after Chalmers went public with his mental health concerns is perhaps the most alarming aspect of all this. It suggests a troubling regression from the positive response to athletes opening up about their challenges in recent years (such as gymnast Simone Biles in Tokyo). The media must do better; with great power comes great responsibility.
No-one knows how this ends. Chalmers has threatened to quit the sport entirely – which would be a major loss for swimming; he remains one of Australia’s best. In the coming days, once the swimming finishes and attention switches to other events in Birmingham, the media will move on. But there is the possibility of some real wreckage being left behind.