Australian team boss Kitty Chiller wanted Rio authorities to bolster security. Photo: Robert CianfloneKitty Chiller was having breakfast in a cafe in Hobart earlier this year when someone drew her attention to a Twitter post from Nick Kyrgios.
The 21-year-old tennis star had been jabbing away at her on social media for weeks; the likelihood of the Australian Olympic Committee endorsing his inclusion on the team for the Rio Olympics was diminishing with each insult.
But this latest one, as far as Chiller was concerned, crossed the line.
When one of Kyrgios’ followers pointed out that Chiller had finished 14th in modern pentathlon at the Sydney Olympics, he responded with this: “Haha she came 14th I don’t think that counts as competing in the olypmics [sic]”.
Chiller fired off an email to AOC media boss Mike Tancred.
“I have had it,” she wrote. “Absolutely unacceptable.”
Recalls Chiller: “That threw me over the edge. That cut me to the quick. In retrospect, that was an emotional response with me not being happy with 14th [in Sydney] 16 years ago. I’m sure, if I psychoanalysed it, that’s why it affected me.
“It also brought back – and this really annoys me – the times when people say, ‘Who’s she? What’s she done?’ That’s irrelevant. It’s f—ing irrelevant to what I’ve done in this role. It’s a perception of some people that if you’re not a gold medallist or swimmer or rower or track and field runner, you’re no good. Nobody knows my story.”
Her role is chef de mission – French for “head of mission” – of the Australian team competing in Rio in August but in another life she was an athlete.
Her story from her home country’s Olympics explains why Kyrgios’ flippant tweet wounded her, and also why she’s fixated on every athlete being treated equally in Rio.
Modern pentathlon’s obscurity conceals its brutality; a sport in which athletes compete in fencing, pistol shooting, swimming, show jumping and cross-country running.
Chiller took it on in 1982 hoping to become an Olympian two years later in Los Angeles. Instead, the women’s competition wasn’t admitted until 2000.
She turned 36 on the day of her event and was up against athletes in their mid-20s.
In the 18 months before Sydney, a horse reared back and broke her nose, she had pneumonia, fractured a skull, suffered foot injuries and went through a divorce from a husband who was also her physiotherapist. She was going to walk away from the sport but kept going out of respect for those who had supported her over the past 18 years.
Then, the day before the opening ceremony, she fractured her knee cap in training.
Because she was competing on the final day of competition, she stayed at home in Melbourne and by the time she walked back into the athletes’ village lugging 40 kilograms of gear, the party had well and truly started.
“Everyone was dressed up and suited and going to the closing ceremony,” Chiller recalls. “And I went into my room and just locked myself there … I didn’t feel part of the team. That night, there was a party outside, they took the sofa out [of her accommodation], fridge out, then there was water fight with a fire hydrant. At 2am, I went and slept in the medical personnel room and bunked in there until I had to get up at 4.30am.”
She laboured through the competition with her busted knee and finished 14th.
“Was my Olympic dream to finish 14th?” she asks. “No. I did the best I could. But it showed me that everyone should be treated equally. That the modern pentathlon on the last day is the same as the swimmers in the 4x100m relay on day five. I don’t want it to appear that I am bitter. There is not one ounce of anger in me. It’s just how it was.”
Since her appointment in 2013, she has become the omnipresent face of our Olympic team.
Snap question: who was Australia’s chef de mission at the London Olympics four years ago? If you said the bloke off Masterchef, go to the back of the classroom. If you said champion rower Nick Green, I’d suggest most of you Googled it first.
Chiller has created a new dynamic for a chef de mission. Isn’t it supposed to be about the athletes?
Says Chiller: “In my first pitch to the AOC executive, my mantra has been: ‘You can be chef de mission or you can do chef de mission’. You can be a wheel-in, wheel-out chef de mission. But every job I’ve had, I get involved. I can’t turn up on August 5 and say I’m your leader and do what I say.”
This is why you’ve seen Chiller at media opportunities trying her hand at canoe slalom, playing badminton, fluking three-pointers on the basketball court, and getting two black eyes from boxer Shelley Watts.
She absolutely refutes that she did so seeking attention and profile.
“That’s not why I did it. It was to get to know the athletes so they trusted me. That they knew me. You have to get them to buy into it, so I have to earn their respect and their trust. A lot of athletes I’ve met don’t know I’m an Olympian. But I want to earn their respect from them now before we arrived in Rio.”
She’s certainly not doing it for the money. Her full-time honorary role is worth $56,250 per year, according to the AOC’s 2015 annual report.
In her role in London as deputy chef de mission alongside swimmer Chris Fydler and under Green, she admits she struggled with the hierarchy that existed within the team.
“I was scared of the swimmers,” she says. “I went to the psychologist on day three in London and said, ‘What’s my place here? I’m with two blokes, two gold medallists, both from high-profile sports, what do I have to offer?’ So I felt sorry for myself for half an hour then I made a role and a place for myself.”
Chiller’s critics say she’s made too much of a place for herself in recent months. Social media, she says, was brutal throughout the Kyrgios saga.
“The personal abuse I got was just horrific. I know they’re trolls and I know Mike [Tancred] yells at me, ‘We tell the athletes not to listen to it’. But I had to go off social media for two weeks. I know I shouldn’t let it affect me, but it does. You can’t defend yourself, you can’t bite back. There’s hate mail and threats that Mike has protected me from I’ve only just found out about.”
Now, I’d been forewarned that Chiller is a crier, and that’s okay.
“I always cry,” she admits, with a smile.
But it takes one more question about how tough the Kyrgios-Tomic episode was and the emotion comes pouring out.
“It was awful … It’s not nice. It’s just lonely. It’s just really lonely. Everyone wants to be liked, so it wasn’t easy.”
Those in support of Chiller will say she did the right thing. The Australian campaign in London suffered from stories of Stilnox abuse, drunken incidents involving rowers and a “toxic culture” in swimming. More than anything, it was a team lacking equality.
Chiller decided to stand up to two brats – Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic – when nobody in their own entourage let alone from Tennis Australia had the temerity to do it. Finally, someone said “no”.
“I didn’t actually say no to him [Kyrgios],” she says. “I would rather look at it as standing up for the values of the team and what it means to be an Olympian. There were some people on watch who weren’t doing that.”
On the flipside, though, Chiller could’ve handled it better.
Surely, she should’ve risen above a public slanging match with a 21-year-old. She was on one side of the net firing away forehands from a media conference. Kyrgios was on the other side, using social media to fire back.
Could she not have just reached out and said, “Nick, this is silly. Let’s have a coffee and hug it out”?
“Don’t worry, I’ve beaten myself up about it in my own mind,” she says after a long pause. “The one mistake I made, at the very first AGM, where I put Tomic and Kyrgios in the same sentence … That’s what started the whole thing. That was wrong, I probably shouldn’t have done that.
“But do I regret how it played out … You know what? No. The national federation came out in defence of him. That’s what hurt me the most. They said, ‘He’s improved’. And this is where Shooting Australia stood up [to Michael Diamond, who was earlier this month banned from competing in Rio with police charges hanging over him]. They said, ‘No, we can’t say this athlete has a good standing with the sport’.”
So far, Chiller has talked a big game: on athlete behaviour around alcohol consumption, security in Rio and team performance.
When it comes to team behaviour, she says this: “I have a zero tolerance for disruptive behaviour. There’s no alcohol where competing athletes are residing. Am I going to go out and have a few drinks? Absolutely. I don’t want to send three people home because they’re drunk. If someone gets rolling drunk, and tip-toes down the corridor and goes to sleep, there’s a warning but they won’t be sent home.”
When it comes to team security, she offers this: “I would be stupid going over there assuming nothing will happen to one of our team members. I’m worried about the second week when athletes are going, ‘Let’s go to this nightclub’ and they go one block further back and they have a drink and they don’t have their wits about them.”
And when it comes to team performance, she is serious when she ambitiously says Australia can double its gold-medal haul in London from eight to 16 – but medals aren’t the benchmark.
“If we come back and we’re sixth or seventh and we’ve gone about it in the right way, and we can walk away with our head held high, I think Australia is a very forgiving nation. We would rather be the most respected in the team than the one with the most medals.”