Olympics: Australia sets aside woes to give Rio underperformers a 'champions' welcome

Australian gold medalist Catherine Skinner smiles as she arrives with other members of the Olympic team in Sydney on Aug 24.
Australian gold medalist Catherine Skinner smiles as she arrives with other members of the Olympic team in Sydney on Aug 24. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia set aside squabbles over under-performing athletes on Wednesday (Aug 24) to welcome home the Rio Olympics team as heroes.

Generous public funding for a return of just half the expected medal tally - Australia's worst performance since Barcelona in 1992 - have sparked recriminations.

But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made light of such woes in leading the tributes at a packed ceremony in an aircraft hangar at Sydney airport.

"Every single one of you is a champion," he told the cheering crowd. "Our performance is not just measured by the final medal tally.

"We are committed to supporting Australian sport, both our participants at the grassroots level, the young boys and girls starting out, and elite athletes like yourselves."

Australia finished 10th in the medals table with eight gold, 11 silver and 10 bronze medals.

"On behalf of all Australians, congratulations... welcome home, well done," the Prime Minister added.

Chef de mission Kitty Chiller, who had to explain so many failures and missteps to the public, was equally positive.

"Our 421 athletes went to Rio and did their absolute best and that is all that we ever asked of anyone," she said, before looking ahead to Tokyo 2020."This was a Games where we demonstrated the strength of our youth. Sixty-five per cent of our team were Olympic rookies and 43 per cent were under the age of 25.

"Our Olympic team is not just about medals. Our team culture and respect for one another has been a key part of this journey."

She admitted that "Rio certainly had its challenges" after the Australian team at first refused to move into sub-standard accommodation, but added: "The village was the best ever, eventually."

The end of the Games saw relations fracture between the Australian Olympic Committee and the government-funded Australian Sports Commission (ASC) in a stormy debate over the appointment of businessmen as heads of Olympic sports.

Australia's highly ranked swimmers were at the vanguard of medal hopes but came away with just three golds.