Is Olympic Swimmer Leisel Jones Fat, or Is This What Fit Looks Like?

The four-time Australian Olympian is at the center of an international controversy about athletes and weight.

Australian swimmer Leisel Jones, shown here at a training session in London, is at the center of a debate about fit versus fat athletes. (Photo: Getty Images Sport)

Jul 26, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Is Leisel Jones too fat to swim? The Australian Olympian is being taken to task in the Australian press for not having the ripped physique of some other athletes, creating a firestorm of backlash and controversy.

What kicked it off was a recent story in Melbourne’s Herald Sun featuring several photos of Jones, a previous gold medalist who will be competing in the London Olympics.

“Showing motivation comes in all shapes,” the story said, “a relaxed Jones arrived in the Games city ready to become the first Australian swimmer to compete at four Olympics. But it was her appearance that had tongues wagging as much as her bid for history. As these pictures show, she resembles none of her previous incarnations and appears heavier than at previous meets.”

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The paper quotes former Australian Olympic swimmer Hayley Lewis as saying, “She probably knows within herself that she doesn’t feel quite 100 per cent fit,” and added, “Leisel has never had that tiny straight up and down, very sinewy, lean swimmer’s body and she’s managed to win countless amounts of Olympic and Commonwealth Games medals.”

We’re not sure if that backhanded compliment is catfight worthy, but the story sparked an Internet uproar about body image, what constitutes fit or fat, and who has the right to tell an Olympic champion she’s overweight.

Yes, the photos reveal that Jones does not have a perfectly flat stomach with washboard abs. But let he or she who is without a muffin top—and who has a few gold medals—cast the first stone.

Yahoo! Sports reported that the paper initially put up a poll asking readers if she was fit to swim in London, but took it down hours later. Fellow Aussie swimmer Melanie Schlanger tweeted in response, “I’m embarrassed by the Aussie media having a go at Leisel, one of Australia’s greatest Olympians. Support athletes, don’t drag them down.”

Jones isn’t the only elite athlete undergoing weight scrutiny. In May the U.K.’s Daily Mail published an article and photos of the British women’s beach volleyball team, which had set up to play an exhibition game in public near the Houses of Parliament in London. They wore team outfits of sports bras and bikini bottoms, and not every athlete was stick thin.

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The story, which made no reference to the athletes’ size (it was actually about how the city will be affected by the Olympics), elicited a stunning 484 comments, of which the vast majority mentioned the women’s appearance.

“Oh God, I just bought beach volley tickets!” one person wrote. “I hope the athletes (male and female) will be better looking and fitter than these!” Said another, “Is Weight Watchers their sponsor, lol.”

“I can’t believe that people on here are making negative body comments about these athletes,” still another commenter wrote. “These girls bodies are fit, healthy, efficient and perform exactly how they need to for their sport. They are not models nor are they claiming to be, they have fantastic healthy bodies and you can guarantee they are super fit and strong. These should be the role models that young girls should aspire too, not the skinny, chain smoking, unhealthy celebrities that they often try to imitate.”

Since we haven’t reached the day when we’re OK with seeing qualified athletes compete no matter what their size, the debate will continue. But Jones is already having the last laugh, since she made the Olympic Team. After all, swimming well is the best revenge.

What do you think about Leisel Jones’s physique? Does she need to lose weight to be a competitive swimmer, or is she fine the way she is? Let us know in the comments.

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