Pittman V Lewis: Claws out

Queens of the catfight

Two of our best Commonwealth Games medal hopes have had a big public falling out. Whose fault is it and why? MIKE HURST reports

AUSTRALIAN track and field legend Raelene Boyle has called for feuding stars Jana Pittman and Tamsyn Lewis to “pull their heads in” for the sake of the Commonwealth Games.

Boyle, the winner of three Olympic medals and seven Commonwealth Games gold medals, issued her plea after another outbreak of catfighting between Pittman and Lewis.

“My advice to both women is: get on with the job,” Boyle said. “If they were swimmers they wouldn’t get away with this. Our management needs to mediate between them.”

And on Friday, her plea was answered.

Australian Commonwealth Games Association boss Perry Crosswhite sent the pair a letter outlining that their feud had broken team rules and wouldn’t be tolerated.

“We have told them that they can’t publicly criticise a teammate and a repeat of the comments would result in stiff penalties,” he said. “It is simply unacceptable behaviour and we hope the girls put their differences aside and get on with the job of preparing for the Games.”

What began as banter, when Lewis accused Pittman of “loving all the drama” when she returned from knee surgery to compete in the 2004 Olympic 400m hurdles, has escalated to the point where both athletes are rapidly losing public support and credibility.

Lewis this week called their fighting “a catfight or bitch fight”.

After Lewis posed for men’s magazine Ralph, and with another shoot appearing in an edition timed for release during next month’s Games, Pittman has accused Lewis of being more interested in being a “bikini babe” than her running career.

Lewis then called Pittman a “bitch” on radio because the former world 400m hurdles champion had said, following the heats of the Australian 400m championships in Sydney last week, that she had “no competition”.

Lewis went on to claim the national 400m title in a race in which Pittman finished eighth and last.

But now Pittman has accused Lewis of creating a “very evil atmosphere” in the 123-member Australian team, which was announced on Tuesday.

“I think our sport needs help, we shouldn’t be creating this evil atmosphere,” an angry Pittman said. “This whole thing needs to be put to bed and we need to have respect for our sport.”

Cliff Mallett, the Games team relays co-ordinating coach, said the relay team and each member’s personal coach would meet on Thursday and then the 4x400m relay squad (which both women are members of) would train together that day or the next before competing.

“I don’t expect the relay runners to like each other, so long as we get the best athletic effort out of them that’s all we expect,” Mallett said.

"Maybe Tamsyn and Jana will exchange the baton between them, maybe not. I don’t know the extent of the friction in their personal relationship.

“But it takes two to tango. If someone wants to be a bit of a bully it depends on how the other reacts. We just need to be careful about being reactionary. We need to reduce the emotion and concentrate on the things that are important – performance on the track.”

Boyd said yesterday that perhaps it would be best to keep Lewis and Pittman apart in the relay, if indeed Pittman was selected for the team, given her recent poor sprint form.

“Maybe the coaches should run one of them first and the other last and separate them,” Boyd said. “But, really, neither is fighting for the individual 400m gold medal.”

Athletics Australia opted to ignore the spat during the national championships, but chief executive Danny Corcoran said: “We speak regularly to both girls and I guess they understand they have a responsibility to the sport. Personally, I don’t like to see spats in the media between athletes.”

Compounding the problem is that both girls have media contracts with a TV station, radio network and a newspaper – where they invariably speak out. Insiders believe that Lewis’s media-hungry personality is the cause of most of the problems.

Former Olympic relay coach Jackie Byrnes agrees.

“Reports have been written about Tamsyn’s behaviour since 1994 and nothing has been done,” she said. "It’s time the lid was put on it all. It started when Tamsyn was 15 and now she’s 27. She’s a brat.

“Tamsyn’s up to her old tricks and, quite frankly, she’s not in the same class as Jana.”

Byrnes was the personal coach of Pittman when she won two world junior championships and ran at the Sydney Olympics. But she had an ugly falling out with Lewis in 1994 at the world junior championships, where the Victorian 15-year-old ran brilliantly to reach the individual 400m final.

When the coach rested Lewis in the heats of the

4x400m relay – with the consequence that the Australian team did not qualify for the final – Lewis took it personally.

Their running battle continued at the Commonwealth Games in Canada, where Lewis did not get to compete for the first of the four Commonwealth teams for which she was selected.

“In Lisbon, I thought Tamsyn was a bit tired and I figured she was our only chance to win a medal and my plan was to rest her,” Byrnes said.

“When the team didn’t reach the final, Tamsyn called me a :eek: `f–––ing bitch’ in the grandstand.”

With the Games only 31 days away and the pair due to cross paths again on Thursday, the Australian public watches with interest to see what the next issue will be between them.

What they should keep in mind is that Crosswhite and the ACGA have the power to dump them if they continue their public slanging stoush.