By Nick Mulvenney
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – In Australian vernacular, the phrase “a bit ordinary” is a damning understatement with a meaning closer to “pretty terrible”.
Australia’s team chief, Kitty Chiller, is one of the few who would not argue that it fairly aptly sums up the nation’s Rio Olympics.
The post mortem, or “blame game” as Chiller put it, was already underway back home on Sunday as the 51-year-old sweated on getting the nine athletes embroiled in an accreditation row out of Brazil on Monday’s team charter flight.
It was the final frustration of Australia’s troubled Games, taking in accommodation complaints, theft, a small fire and one of their swimmers being mugged a few days before the nine athletes were detained.
In competition, things went only marginally better and defeat for the men’s basketball team by a single point in the bronze medal match on Sunday left Australia with eight gold medals and 29 in total.
That was close to their tally from London four years ago (8-35) but 10th place on the final medals table in Rio was well short of the their target of a top-five finish.
While the likes of Kyle Chalmers and Chloe Esposito will be rightly lauded for their gold medal-winning exploits, Chiller may end up being the most memorable face of Australia’s Games.
Brought in as Australia’s first woman chef de mission to replace the amiable Nick Green after the London Games were blighted by a swimming team scandal, the former modern pentathlete laid down the law from day one.
Anything that compromised, or threatened to compromise, the “culture” of the Australian team would simply not be tolerated.
Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic, Australia’s two top tennis players, were handed warnings about their brattish behavior and withdrew their names from contention.
Chiller took a similarly uncompromising stance with Rio organizers.
Six weeks before the Games, she demanded the city immediately ramp up security after a Paralympic sailor and team official were robbed at gunpoint.
When Chiller arrived in Brazil, she created an early media storm by refusing to allow the team to move into their Athletes’ Village accommodation until it was up to scratch.
Another row toward the end of the Games led to accusations that she was running the team like a kindergarten when she banned swimmers Emma McKeon and Josh Palmer from the closing ceremony for breaches of discipline.
McKeon, who won a gold, two silvers and a bronze medal in Rio, earned a reprieve when she apologized for not informing her team leader about a decision to spend the night with a friend.
Chiller maintained throughout that her main priority was making sure that the 421 athletes in her care returned to Australia safe and sound.
Ultimately, though, the quality of Australia’s Games was always going to be decided in the pool and velodrome and on the rowing lake and running track.
Australian taxpayers pumped about A$340 million ($260 million) into Olympic sports over the four years leading up the Rio and they have always expected the nation to punch well above its weight.
On Saturday, Chiller shed tears as she spoke of the ‘trauma’ felt by nine athletes who had been held overnight and fined by police for wearing the wrong accreditation to a basketball game.
On Sunday, she looked simply crestfallen as she tried to put a positive spin on the medal tally.
“I’m extremely proud of our team,” she told a news conference. “There have been many standout and breakthrough performances and those should be a focus.
“I think what Rio has reminded us is that Olympic medals are not easy to come by,” she added. “Our efforts here were very, very often close but they fell just short.”
Chiller said that numerous athletes had approached her to apologize for “letting her down”.
“I have told each and every one … they have not let anyone down,” she said. “I’m not disappointed in them. I am disappointed for them.”
Chiller thought Australia’s future looked bright heading towards the Tokyo Olympics and that all the hard work that had gone in to improving the team’s culture had been worthwhile.
“This is a time when we should celebrate the achievements of our team,” she said. “The blame game always follows. I am not interested in the blame game.”
($1 = 1.3116 Australian dollars)
(Additional reporting by Amy Tannery; Editing by Mark Bendeich)