Constant questions about Kyle Chalmers’ private life discredit sports journalism and damage swimmer’s mental health
Sports journalism can do a lot of good.
It’s an area of the profession that has produced beautiful writing, brought to light dark corners and explained the intricacies of elite sport to those of us who watch in awe.
And sports journalism has done a lot with athletes to open the dialogue about mental health. Thanks to many pioneers, admitting that you have an anxiety or depression problem is no longer taboo.
But sportswriters also have a responsibility to recognize that their words can have a powerful impact on those same athletes.
These people who look like Greek gods are anything but human and imperfect like all of us.
Kyle Chalmers, is temperamental, ready to fight, and who can blame him.
Once again, his private life has somehow become a topic of public discussion despite his objections.
On Saturday night, it exploded in a messy and deeply personal press conference at the Commonwealth Games pool.
Today he said ‘those were the hardest 12 hours of my sporting career’.
So how did we get here?
In May, Chalmers competed in the Australian Swimming Trials and, following injury and only eight weeks of training, produced outstanding performances in his first love, the butterfly.
He raced so well that he managed to qualify for the World Championships last month in Budapest.
And yet, somehow, the narrative was turned on its head – he had “turned down” the pop star, became a swimmer, Cody Simpson a spot on the team after finishing third.
Then the story became something of a “love triangle” between Simpson and his girlfriend, Emma McKeon, who happened to be Chalmers’ ex-partner.
Chalmers was injured. He announced on Instagram that the whirlwind story took a huge toll on his mental health.
He referred to “made-up storylines surrounding my personal life”.
And so we come to Saturday night in Birmingham: Kyle Chalmers had just won his second gold of the week by anchoring the men’s 4x100m relay – giving Cody Simpson his first Commonwealth Games gold after swam in one of the heats.
Chalmers had also tasted success the previous day with McKeon, winning the mixed relay together.
But when Chalmers appeared to distance himself somewhat from McKeon the day after the race, the media reported on the couple’s “frosty” relationship and their “awkward encounter”.
It followed other stories on other platforms once again focusing on the so-called love triangle and the tensions between the trio – all unsourced.
On Saturday evening, the men’s relay team spoke to members of the print media.
After three quick questions about the race to Flynn Southam and Zac Incerti, a reporter asked Chalmers about his apparent snub of McKeon after the mixed relay.
“Did you watch the whole race? I definitely said congratulations,” retorted Chalmers.
When asked if he felt “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” by another reporter, Chalmers agreed, then let go.
“I find it difficult that we won almost all the medals in hand last night, and again tonight, and that’s the scenario,” he said.
“I think the media really needs to start growing and focusing on the right things.”
He said the media coverage continued to impact his mental health.
“Everyone still wants to roast me,” he said.
“You can try to knock me down all you want, but you know it’s only going to be for a while, and I’ll stop talking to the media.”
Chalmers’ response was a clear expression of frustration and a clear plea to reporters to respect the mental health of athletes.
Regarding Simpson, he said the two communicated and he offered his support and thanks to the other swimmer after the relay race.
And still more questions followed: why had Chalmers posted a picture on Instagram holding his crutch? Would the gold medal unite Simpson and Chalmers?
“Who told you that we are not reunited? I would like to know that… have you been to the village? Chalmers asked.
Both valid questions. The answer to the latter was “no”.
When asked if he could clarify the situation with Simpson, he repeated what he had said moments earlier and spoke highly of what Simpson had achieved and brought to the sport.
“Focus on the positives rather than trying to make up a story that isn’t true. It’s all fake news that’s actually just crap,” he said.
Then came another question: “What is your relationship with Emma?”
Let’s stop here and take a few steps back.
Remember, Chalmers had previously implored the reporters in attendance to respect his sanity, and yet received a series of questions based on false assumptions about his personal relationships.
He was then hit with another irrelevant question about McKeon.
That’s when the media officer ended the line of questions – although Chalmers, although extremely exasperated, prepared to answer.
It was a heated six-minute exchange with Chalmers constantly pushed on personal matters despite repeated references to the damage such questions can do to his mental health.
A Channel Nine TV crew waited patiently to interview Chalmers on behalf of a host of non-rights holders, but Chalmers had had enough and walked away.
That night, he posted again on Instagram, doubling down on the damage the “fake headlines” had done to athletes – “it’s breaking them down little by little,” he wrote, adding that his sanity was at the ” bottom”.
Today he said he had only slept for an hour and he didn’t even know if he wanted to compete in his favorite event, the 100m freestyle.
“I want to be on a plane to go home and get this over with. It’s very, very overwhelming and upsetting,” Chalmers said.
Chalmers is not a womanizing politician who campaigned on the sanctity of family values. He is a sportsman and his private life is just that: private.
Sports press conferences can be exceptionally difficult, especially for young athletes.
All of a sudden, a barrage of microphones is thrown at you from people you’ve often never met, asking sometimes inane and unexamined questions.
Chalmers has been around, and he can handle himself, but that’s not the case for everyone.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka hates them and has spoken openly about her battles with mental illness and the pressure of having to answer questions is extremely stressful.
There are times when sports press conferences can reveal revealing information. This week, Chelsea Hodges and Elijah Winnington spoke openly about how their mental health suffered after the Tokyo Olympics.
But reporters need to have the emotional intelligence to read the piece — the job requires reporters to know when it’s good to push and when it’s time to step back.
It’s a two-way street: journalists demand that athletes answer their questions, but they also have an obligation not to ask personal questions if they are told they are harmful and above all to report factually.
We all know the power of words.