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Swimmers reject Leisel's body criticism

Former members of the Australian swim team jump to the defence of Leisel Jones after unflattering photos suggested she was out of shape.

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THE chief of Australia's Olympic team has hit out at the ''disgraceful'' criticism of Leisel Jones' physical condition and mounted an impassioned defence of the eight-time Olympic medallist.

Australian chef de mission Nick Green opened his daily media conference by declaring that Jones had the full support of the team.

''She's a triple Olympic gold medallist and a winner of eight Olympic medals for this country. I think she deserves a lot more respect than she was given,'' he said.

Olympics, London 2012 Swimming training at the Aquatic Centre. Leisel Jones Wednesday July 25th 2012.
Photos: Steve Christo

Leisel Jones trains at the Olympic aquatic centre yesterday. Photo: Steve Christo

''I'm pleased that there's been unanimous support for Leisel Jones by her fellow competitors, by other athletes. I've seen comments from Cathy Freeman, Giaan Rooney, Libby Trickett.''

The episode could influence Green's task of selecting a flag bearer to lead the Australian team in the opening ceremony. He has consistently raised Jones among the candidates and last night described the 26-year-old swimmer as a model Olympian who deserved the utmost respect. Jones is the first female Australian swimmer to be selected for four Olympics.

A series of unflattering photographs of Jones were published in Australian newspapers yesterday under headlines such as 'Jones not here for a holiday: coach' and 'Leisel is relaxed, but is she ready?' The stories contained no direct criticism of Jones' condition.

Leisel Jones.

Leisel Jones training in London last night. Photo: Steve Christo

Asked if there were ever reasonable grounds to criticise the physique of top athletes, Green responded: ''I think you've got to respect that athletes prepare for four years for this occasion. And athletes come in different shapes and sizes.

''It's your performance, and your preparation leading into the performance, which is absolutely paramount.

''Athletes don't come to an Olympic Games on a holiday. They just don't. And Leisel is a superb athlete; a triple Olympic gold medallist and she's won eight medals for this country.''

The coverage provoked an outraged response from a series of former Olympians.

Two-time Olympic gold medallist Kieren Perkins was staunch in his defence of Jones' appearance and work ethic, saying the swimmer had always ''had her own shape'', and looked no different to him.

''I have absolutely no doubt that we spend far too much time worrying about the aesthetics of bodies without appreciating the unique physical traits that allow someone to do the extraordinary things that they do.''

Cathy Freeman described the criticism of Jones as unAustralian. ''It's not very friendly or encouraging,'' she said. ''All of us need to be supportive of our athletes.''

Former teammate Hayley Lewis said the criticism was unfair just days out from competition.

She said Jones had won countless Olympic and Commonwealth medals.

''When standing next to the younger, slimmer girls, she probably doesn't look like she's fighting fit. But in saying that, she's never had that figure anyway,'' she said.

But Lewis, who hosts television show The Biggest Loser, acknowledged that ''she probably knows within herself that she doesn't feel quite 100 per cent fit''.

She recalled her own battle with her appearance during her swimming career. ''I will never forget some of the situations I had to go through with my weight. I will carry it for ever and I think even to this day I will have body image problems.''

Criticisms of Jones' physical shape could have a devastating impact on her mental state, according to the Butterfly Foundation, which supports Australians with eating disorders and body-image problems.

With PETER HANLON and MEGAN LEVY