Sports journalism can do a lot of good.
It’s a field of the profession that has produced some beautiful writing, shone a light into dark corners, and explained the intricacies of elite sport to those of us who watch on in awe.
And sports journalism has done a lot with athletes to open up the dialogue about mental health. Thanks to many trailblazers, admitting that you have an issue with anxiety or depression is no longer taboo.
But sports journalists also have a responsibility to acknowledge that their words can have a powerful impact on those same athletes.
These people who look like Greek gods are anything but – they’re human and flawed like every single one of us.
Kyle Chalmers, is tetchy, ready to pick a fight, and who can blame him.
Once again, his private life has somehow become a matter of public discussion despite his objections.
On Saturday night, it blew up at a messy and deeply personal press conference at the Commonwealth Games pool.
Today, he said “it’s been the hardest 12 hours of my sporting career.”
So how has it come to this?
In May, Chalmers competed in the Australian swimming trials and off the back of an injury and only eight weeks training, produced some outstanding performances in his first love, the butterfly.
So well did he race, he managed to qualify for the World Championships last month in Budapest.
And yet somehow the narrative was turned on its head – he’d “denied” pop star, turned swimmer, Cody Simpson a spot on the team after he came third.
Then the story somehow became about a “love triangle” between Simpson and his girlfriend, Emma McKeon, who happened to be Chalmers’s ex-partner.
Chalmers was hurt. He announced on Instagram that the swirling story had taken a massive toll on his mental health.
He referred to “made-up story lines surrounding my personal life.”
And so we come to Saturday night in Birmingham: Kyle Chalmers had just won his second gold medal of the week anchoring the men’s 4 x 100m relay – giving Cody Simpson his first Commonwealth Games gold after he had swum 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 be somewhat distanced from McKeon in the aftermath of the race, media reports emerged about the pairs “icy” relationship and their “awkward encounter.”
There followed more stories on other platforms focusing once again on the so-called love triangle and tensions between the trio – all unsourced.
On Saturday night, 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 journalist asked Chalmers about his apparent snub of McKeon after the mixed relay.
“Did you watch the whole race? I definitely said congratulations,” Chalmers retorted.
Asked if he felt “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” by another journalist, Chalmers agreed, then let rip.
“I find it hard that we almost win every single medal on hand last night, and again tonight, and that’s the storyline,” he said.
“I think the media really need to start to grow up and focus on the good things.”
He said the media coverage was continuing to have an impact on his mental health.
“Everyone still wants to roast me,” he said.
“You can try and bring me down all you want, but you know it’s only going to last so long, and I will stop talking to the media.”
Chalmers’s response was a clear expression of frustration and a clear call for journalists to respect athlete’s mental health.
Regarding Simpson, he said the two communicated and that he offered the other swimmer support and thanks after the relay swim.
And yet more questions followed: Why had Chalmers posted a photo on Instagram holding his crutch? Would the gold medal bring Simpson and Chalmers together?
“Who’s to say that we’re not brought together? I’d like to know that… have you been in the village?” Chalmers asked.
Both valid questions. The answer to the latter was “no”.
Asked if he could clarify the situation with Simpson, he repeated what he had said just moments earlier and spoke highly of what Simpson had achieved and brought to the sport.
“Focus on the positives rather than try to make up some story that’s not actually true. This is all false news that’s actually just crap,” he said.
Then came another question: “What’s your relationship with Emma?”
Let’s just stop here and take a few steps back.
Remember, Chalmers had already implored the journalists on hand to respect his mental health, and yet had received a series of questions based on false assumptions about his personal relationships.
He was then hit with another irrelevant question about McKeon.
It was at this point the media manager shut down the line of questioning – even though Chalmers, while extremely exasperated, was preparing to answer.
It was a heated six-minute exchange with Chalmers being continually pushed on personal questions despite repeatedly referring to the damage those sorts of questions can do to his mental health.
A Channel Nine TV crew had been patiently waiting 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 “false headlines” does to athletes – “it breaks them down little by little,” he wrote, adding his mental health was at “rock bottom.”
Today, he said he had just an hour of sleep and was unsure whether he even wanted to compete in his pet event, the 100m freestyle.
“I want to be on a plane home and be done with it all. It is very, very overwhelming and upsetting,” Chalmers said.
Chalmers is not a philandering politician who’s campaigned on the sanctity of family values. He’s a sportsperson and his private life is just that: private.
Sporting press conferences can be exceptionally confronting – particularly for young athletes.
All of a sudden, a barrage of microphones are thrust at you by people you’ve often never met, asking questions that are sometimes inane and not researched.
Chalmers has been around, and he can handle himself, but that’s not the case for everyone.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka detests them and has spoken openly about her battles with mental illness, and how the pressure of having to answer questions is overwhelmingly stressful.
There are times when the sporting press conferences can reveal telling information. This week, both Chelsea Hodges and Elijah Winnington have spoken openly about how their mental health suffered after the Tokyo Olympics.
But journalists have to have the emotional intelligence to read the room — the job demands that reporters know when it’s OK to push, and when it’s time to pull back.
It’s a two-way street: journalists demand that sports people answer their questions, but they also have an obligation to not ask personal questions if they’ve been told they’re damaging and above all to report factually.
We all know the power of words.