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‘Character’ and ‘behaviour’ off the field should not be selection criteria for the Olympics

Tennis star Nick Krygios has withdrawn himself from possible selection for the Rio Olympics, citing ‘unfair’ treatment by the AOC. EPA/Ian Langsdon

‘Character’ and ‘behaviour’ off the field should not be selection criteria for the Olympics

Having already courted considerable controversy in a relatively short career, tennis player Nick Kyrgios last week withdrew from probable selection for the Rio Olympics. Kyrgios said he made this decision because of the Australian Olympic Committee’s (AOC) “unfair and unjust treatment” of him and because “the AOC has chosen to publicly and privately disparage me”.

Kyrgios claimed that Kitty Chiller, the chef de mission of the Australian Olympic team, had unfairly targeted him as being “on watch” due to his perceived behavioural issues.

Chiller responded that there were “a couple of athletes on notice”. She revealed that other potential Australian Olympians, including shooter Michael Diamond and hockey player Anna Flanagan, received similar correspondence from the AOC. The letters requested an explanation of charges that have been laid against each of them.

All three athletes – Diamond, Flanagan and Kyrgios – were asked:

… to respond to where it could be perceived that they have bought themselves, their sport or the Olympic movement into disrepute.

It appears the AOC has not singled out Kyrgios for harsher treatment than others, so claims of unfairness could be dismissed. But the case for the AOC would be even stronger if similar letters had been handed out to the troublemakers from previous games, such as certain members of the London swim team.

Many prominent journalists have supported the AOC’s position. Caroline Wilson, Robert Craddock and Peter FitzSimons have all applauded the strong stance taken by Chiller and the AOC.

So, what to make of it? There is both integrity and courage in the AOC’s stand, especially at a time of budgetary tightness. Chiller and the AOC have demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice potential medals in tennis, shooting and hockey to protect the reputation of the AOC and the Olympic ideal. Chiller has said she is “very comfortable” with that possibility.

Kyrgios’ claims of injustice are probably a more difficult matter to determine, and tie directly both into the process that was followed and the justification for it.

TV host Waleed Aly explained the problem excellently: the issue was the process was carried out in the public arena and specific athletes were named as “on watch”.

This problem, described by Kyrgios as the AOC’s public disparagement of him, would be solved by a more diplomatic handling of questions from the press, and the AOC’s determination to keep the specific athlete names private. After all, the financial livelihoods of athletes in the contemporary age rely heavily on their reputations.

The latter issue of justification of the process is more troublesome. It is difficult to justify the AOC putting athletes on watch for either their behaviour in their professional workplace or because of their out-of-sport behaviour. This is normally justified by pointing to organisational reputation or integrity.

Integrity is one of the favourite buzzwords of sports management. It is a powerful word. It goes beyond mere compliance with rules or practices. It evokes the image of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird; of a person defiantly sticking to worthy principles in the face of personal danger.

However, in practice, integrity has been used to justify any number of intrusions into the private lives of athletes. Consider that Flanagan was asked to “please explain” why she kept her drink-driving charge secret from Hockey Australia. My response would be “because they don’t need to know”.

While the signing of AOC team agreements includes clauses regarding disclosure, I would question the justification for these clauses. Arguing that athletes can choose not to represent their country if they don’t want to sign a contract ignores the constraint that this places on athletes.

Privacy should matter here, and athletes should not be forced to reveal things that do not affect their ability to carry out the demands of their athletic work.

I certainly believe that employment behavioural standards matter, and that the behaviours of Olympians at the Olympics should be monitored and evaluated. But I’m not convinced that athletes should be judged and selected on the basis of some broader behavioural matrix, which has a whiff of the old days of the Olympics when professional athletes were banned.

Ethicists often test claims by applying them to broader categories. Consider whether the journalists who ardently support the actions of the AOC would agree to the same employment standards being applied to their own profession.

Would these journalists support pre-emptive strikes against colleagues in the press office who had previously exhibited bad behaviour, including bad behaviour outside of their professional world, such as drink driving? If so, it might be a lonely pressbox at Rio.

The issue here is not that journalists are not representing their country in the way that athletes are. The issue is that the employment rights of certain athletes have the potential to be curtailed on the basis of things that occurred outside their work.

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