(Editorial note: Olympian Jack Conger is a family friend.)
With the official close of the 2016 Olympics Sunday evening, it is now abundantly clear that this year’s games will be best remembered not only for the achievements of such medalists as Simone Biles and Usain Bolt, but also for the misguided adventures of a small group of U.S. swimmers, but most notably by the actions of one man: Ryan Lochte. The lessons learned from the mistakes made offer enough material for an entire book, but let’s try to condense them into a digestible blog post. Here is the most complete and from what I can tell accurate reporting on the events that happened very early that fateful Sunday morning. Rather than rehashing the facts, here are some observations:
1. Even the most innocuous misbehavior can become a big deal when it involves a celebrity and takes place in another country. Public urination in the middle of the night behind a gas station may not cost the average college student more than a citation, if that, but when you’re an Olympic athlete in another country and in the company of some of the world’s most recognizable athletes, the stakes are much higher. You can suddenly find yourself in the middle of an international incident with your reputation shattered by someone else’s behavior.
2. The adage “the cover-up is worse than the crime” doesn’t begin to adequately describe the cascade of mistakes that turned what likely would have been an unremarkable incident into a cause celebre: First came Lochte’s pulling down a framed exterior poster at the gas station, which both caught the attention of gas station employees and led to the armed confrontation and demand for compensation that Lochte later mischaracterized as a robbery. Then, when the four were lucky enough to escape unscathed without involvement of the authorities, Lochte foolishly tells his mother not only that they’d been robbed, but adds a richly embroidered tale of how their cab had been commandeered by criminal police officers, none of which was true.
3. The story exploited stereotypes of violence and corruption that Cariocas are understandably sensitive about. Perhaps Lochte thought that made it more credible, but it also made it potentially more incendiary. Of course, he never thought it would go public, but it did. Like any parent horrified upon hearing such a story, his mother told others, and when it went public, he had to decide whether to stick with it or fess up. As we now know, he doubled down on the story in an interview with NBC, making matters exponentially worse. The story made international headlines, dragging his three teammates along. By the time it began unraveling, Lochte had flown out of Rio, leaving his teammates behind – which ended up looking terrible for him.
4. Lochte’s lawyer initially doubled down on the robbery story, but then Lochte released a public apology on Saturday morning that backed off the robbery narrative and implied that the confusion resulted from conflicting interpretations of events. That only inflamed things because the statement, though apologetic in tone, admitted to no wrongdoing, ignored the fabrication about being pulled over, and seemed to make ridiculous excuses. Maybe Lochte really didn’t “get it,” but it’s more likely the statement was a poorly executed compromise between PR advisers who wanted a full apology and lawyers – worried that Lochte might still be indicted in Brazil and also concerned about his endorsement deals – who wanted him to speak with caution.
5. After being pulled off a plane, not as suspects but as witnesses in the Brazilian investigation, two of the other swimmers – Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz – were interviewed by the authorities as well as by US officials. Once Conger and Bentz issued public statements detailing what really happened, Lochte – already likely aware that his earlier statement was backfiring, gave an interview to NBC’s Matt Lauer that was broadcast Sunday evening, in which he took full responsibility and offered tearful apologies. Had he done so sooner, he would have experienced a better outcome and spared his three teammates a great deal of negative publicity.
6. In the heated media frenzy of an event like this, falsehoods that work their way into the narrative persist even after they’ve been effectively disproven. For example, the authorities suggested at one point, apparently based on the statement of a taxi driver, that there were one or two women in the cab with the swimmers and were the reason for Lochte making up a story. There weren’t any women. An even more persistent falsehood was the assertion by the authorities, which continues to be repeated, that the gas station bathroom door was kicked in and the bathroom vandalized. Even though NBC found no evidence for that, and all evidence is that the alleged bathroom vandalism never happened. Yet it continues to be repeated; even respected journalist Sally Jenkins described it as a “rampage.”
7. The embarrassment caused by this incident will likely result in sanctions from the U.S. Olympic Committee and/or USA Swimming. Hopefully they will be sensitive to the different levels of involvement between Lochte, on the one hand, and the other three swimmers. But it is a reminder that all of us, and especially celebrity athletes representing their country in the Olympics, need to be on their very best behavior, and that peccadilloes that might be overlooked at home can become an international incident abroad, especially if you find yourself hanging out with the wrong guy.