It hasn’t been the best three weeks for Ryan Lochte. The second-most decorated male Olympic swimmer in history behind the great Michael Phelps, 32-year-old Lochte entered his fourth Olympics as a shadow of his former world-champion self. He competed in only two events, the 4×200 meter freestyle and the 200 meter individual medley, and when he failed to medal in the latter, his specialty, he surely thought he had reached the low point of his stay in Rio. Oh, how wrong he was.
Just a few days after his final event, Lochte reported to the Rio de Janeiro police that he and three other members of the US men’s swimming team had been pulled out of their cab and robbed at gunpoint in the streets. The incident was seized upon by the media as yet another example of the violence and poor conditions surrounding the games, and with everything that had happened up to that point – the daily muggings of fans, the feces clogging the waterways, the bus of Chinese basketball reporters getting caught in the middle of a gunfight – people had little reason to doubt the veracity of Lochte’s claims.
Except for the part where…you know…it never actually happened, at least not in the manner described by Lochte. Just a few days after Lochte shared the details of his “encounter” to the world via an interview with NBC, Brazilian police released their own findings in an internationally-televised press conference. Nobody had been pulled over. Nothing was stolen. While a gun was drawn, there exists no evidence that it had been trained on anybody with the intent to shoot. And most damningly, the swimmers, it turned out, had not been confronted by hoodlums but by security guards after they had urinated on and damaged a public restroom. In response to the new evidence brought to light, all Lochte could muster up as an explanation was that he “over-exaggerated” his story.
Naturally, public opinion turned on Lochte faster than Usain Bolt can run 100 meters. Always known as a somewhat of an airhead due to his stereotypical jock personality and comically vague (and often nonsensical) answers in interviews, the swimmer transitioned from a victimized, lovable idiot in the eyes of millions to a spoiled, entitled disgrace to his country. Within a span of 24 hours, Forrest Gump became O.J. Simpson. It wasn’t just his fans that turned on him either. In a stunning financial hit, Lochte lost all four of his commercial sponsors: Speedo, Ralph Lauren, Airweave, and Gentle Hair Removal. The move was devastating but not unexpected; sponsors are always quick to dismiss their clients if they become pariahs.
If I’m being honest, I’m not Ryan Lochte’s biggest fan. Like most of America, I have always been solidly on the Phelps side of their rivalry, and have personally found Lochte’s goofiness to be more annoying than endearing. So when the Brazil police said their bit and turned his story on its head, I have to admit I felt some genuine amusement in addition to the embarrassment over a member of our country’s delegation screwing up in such a public fashion. Here was the validation I had always wanted that Lochte was not only a bimbo but a jackass as well! I never thought I would possibly feel bad for the guy. Only here is the real kicker: there are now reports coming to light from USA Today that Lochte wasn’t the only one “over-exaggerating.” Rio de Janeiro police chief Fernando Veloso seems to have been peddling some false information as well.
Recently released security footage shows that Lochte and his teammates never even entered the bathroom that they supposedly vandalized and had committed no greater damage than ripping a poster off a wall. Fernando Deluz, a Brazilian disc jockey who translated between the Americans and the security guards, also claims that the situation was much more hostile than Veloso would have the media believe, with one of the guards indeed drawing a gun unprovoked. None of this excuses the documented public urination or intoxication of the swimmers but it becomes easier to see how Lochte may have gotten confused and been genuinely scared in the situation.
So what do we make of this? With so much misinformation on both sides and the likelihood that we will never know what exactly went down, it almost feels irresponsible to take a strong opinion. What I can say for sure is that out of all the parties involved, none have botched the situation so thoroughly as the media, which apparently took little or no time to evaluate the truthfulness of either Ryan Lochte or the Brazilian authorities. Reporting on this whole incident has been about as thorough and researched as the gossip of the Real Housewives, and now that level of irresponsibility has had some serious financial ramifications for a man who may not have actually deserved them. As for Lochte I will say this: I feel bad for the guy for getting such harsh public treatment over what could possibly be a misunderstanding, but also recognize that if he hadn’t stupidly placed himself in such a position, this whole debacle could have been avoided. Yes, we have all been in situations that we later regretted and it seems rather unfair to condemn a man for some pretty trivial acts he committed while he was intoxicated, but at the same time more is always expected of public figures.
It is regrettable that the hammer has already come down on Lochte without any due process but that is the price we pay for living in a media-driven world where endless information is right at our fingertips and everyone is given a voice to share what they believe. This situation isn’t too different from any high-profile criminal trial or legal scandal in the United States, where millions of armchair prosecutors have the gall to think they possess enough knowledge to adjudicate a situation they know nothing about. Unfair though it may be, we have reached the point of no return in terms of societal snap judgments. You want people to take the time to fact check their news before developing an opinion and sharing it with others? Start by abolishing social media and while you’re at it invent a time machine and establish world peace as well.
Ultimately though, does any of this really matter? As far as controversies go, isn’t this one somewhere near the bottom of the barrel as far as actual significance to our everyday lives? The public’s fascination with a scandal so ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things is eye-opening. Even I am disappointed with myself for how much time I have spent wondering how this thing is going to be resolved. There are more important issues on hand that deserve our attention; lest anybody forget, we have an election coming up with two candidates who have done their fair share of lying! And I’m not saying that Clinton and Trump should be the only things on our minds in the coming weeks, but perhaps we should be focusing a bit more on them and less on the tall tales of a nimrod like Lochte. Sadly, just like asking people to stop rushing to conclusions, a request for more attention to be given to consequential news in lieu of human interest controversies probably amounts to nothing more than a pipe dream.