Internet trolls target Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington over her looks
OLYMPIC swimmer Rebecca Adlington has revealed her anger at the "awful" and "nasty" abuse she receives because of the way that she looks.
The world and Olympic champion says she receives abusive messages on her Twitter account and cannot read articles about herself online without being confronted by derogatory comments about her appearance.
“I used to read all the stuff about me but I’m one of those people who scroll down to the bottom and read the comments thing – I learnt very quickly not to do that,” she said. “It is awful and I get angry. Even if there are 10 nice comments you get one idiot. I’ve now given up. It upsets me or gets me angry.
“Most things that I read about myself are not swimming related. They are how to do with how I look, which has nothing to do with my performance in the pool.
“I’ve never read something that has really criticised me in the pool over the past year. It’s just nasty comments about things I can’t control. I can’t help the way I look or who I am.
“People are not always going to like me but that has nothing to do with my swimming. That really gets me going.”
Team GB’s female athletes are being judged on standards that have nothing to do with their ability. Last week it was revealed that heptathletes Jessica Ennis and Louise Hazel were criticised for being “fat” by members of the UK Athletics hierarchy. Olympic triathlete Hollie Avil has quit the sport at the age of 22 after suffering from an eating disorder triggered by a remark made by a British Triathlon coach about her weight.
Adlington complained to the BBC in 2009 over a joke made by the comedian Frankie Boyle that mocked her looks and since then online stories about her have attracted offensive posts by internet trolls. She is also sent “nasty” messages by anonymous posters to her Twitter account.
“I love the block button on Twitter,” she said. “I don’t know how people expect to send a nasty message and not get blocked.
“I won’t be checking it or going on it a lot during the Games. The messages of support are amazing but you do have the chance of someone saying something that is going to be annoying. You don’t want that added stress. You don’t want to be thinking about that. I think I will just tweet once it is over.”
There is an argument you hear made that many female athletes appear in advertisements for their sponsors and that by raising their profile in this way, they are inviting this kind of criticism. The counter is that, with one or two exceptions, these athletes are chosen is for their sporting excellence. Why should they not earn a living through endorsements after reaching the pinnacle of their sport?
“I’m not an athlete who wants to do everything they can to raise their profile,” Adlington said. “It’s not about that – it’s about my swimming. It’s not about making lots of money. I want to let my swimming do the talking more than anything else.
“Just staying on top of the psychological demands of being a top competitor is challenging enough without this kind of criticism.”
After winning her two gold medals for Britain in Beijing, Adlington had a crisis of confidence, suffering under the pressure of expectation that should would win at every meet. She worked on overcoming these challenges with sports psychologist Simon Middlemas and has emerged a more tenacious competitor, demonstrated in the way she won the world 800metres freestyle title in Shanghai last summer.
“I have definitely learnt more from my disappointments over the last four years than I have from my good times,” she said. “Every swimmer has to go through that. If you can’t learn from them and move on, you will just keep doing downhill. That is part of being in sport.
“I remember the European Championships two years ago – I came out crying when I finished seventh. I learnt so much from that experience. That makes you so much stronger, so much more determined.
“I was crying because I disappointed myself. I knew what I was capable of. I realised how much it meant to me. If I wasn’t upset then I would think ‘why am I doing this? Am I in it for the right reason?’”
“I’m lucky in that my competitiveness has always been there. I am very, very driven and work hard. I’m not someone who shies away from work or misses sessions. I’m competitive at anything, even outside the pool.
“Take driving. I’m even competitive there. I like to beat my satnav. You put in your destination and it says you will get there at 2.44pm. And I think, ‘No I will get there at 2.43pm.’ It’s just to get there before it.”
With her performances in the past year, Adlington has shown that her hunger remains as keen as ever. She will swim in the Mare Nostrum meet in Barcelona this weekend and in the second national trials in Sheffield at the end of next month. These are the places to judge her on how good she looks — in the water.