She’s an eight-time Olympic medalist, returning to the Games for her fourth time this summer, and is considered one of the greatest swimmers in Australian history.
But Leisel Jones’s swimming prowess isn’t stopping critics from fixating on the way she looks in her Olympic swimsuit, suggesting she may be battling a weight problem and is unfit to swim.
Melbourne-based Herald Sun published photos of the 26-year-old athlete taken during her first Olympic training session this year, and compared it to a photo taken four years ago.
The caption under the photo reads: "The Olympic veteran's figure is in stark contrast to that of 2008," and an accompanying poll asked readers if they thought she was fit enough to swim at the London Games.
The debate over Ms. Jones’s apparent weight gain sparked anger from Olympic athletes and her fans, prompting the Herald Sun to take down the poll just hours after it was posted.
"I think it's very un-Australian, to be quite frank,” Cathy Freeman, an Olympic sprinting gold medalist, told the Canberra Times. “'All of us need to be supportive of our athletes.''
Australia’s Olympic chef de mission, Nick Green, also came to defence of Ms. Jones, telling the paper: “She’s a triple Olympic gold medalist and a winner of eight Olympic medals for this country. I think she deserves a lot more respect than she was given.”
Former Olympian Giaan Rooney told the Sydney Morning Herald that the photos of Ms. Jones were taken from a bad angle and suggestions that she is in bad physical shape were “incredibly unfair and incredibly judgmental" – comments that could negatively affect her mental state before the competition.
"Leisel has always been very strong through her hips, she has always been really strong through her legs. She needs to be. She’s a breaststroker, and for me I don’t think there’s any difference [in her weight],” Ms. Rooney told Melbourne radio station 3AW.
Those same powerful hips and thighs, it should be noted, have helped Ms. Jones set numerous swimming world records.
Should Olympic athletes, who are public figures after all, expect to be scrutinized about their physical appearance? And does it matter if Leisel Jones has gained weight since 2008?