RIO de JANEIRO — All of his life, Ryan Lochte has been looking for the thing that would make him famous. He is not alone in this way. Fame is a powerful narcotic. It has driven generals and movie stars, writers and doctors, philosophers and humanitarians and groundbreakers and reality TV show stars to do extraordinary things and ludicrous things, righteous things and terrible things, to change the world and to become clowns.
In Ryan Lochte’s case, the draw of fame drove him to do all those things and then some.
No one on earth worked harder in the pool. He was not always the most reliable of souls, but when he showed up, when it was time to work, he became a force of nature. The stories of his workouts are legendary — they include the time he did one hundred 100-meter swims at nearly full speed. That’s 10,000 meters, more than six miles of all-out swimming. It is insanity. But Olympic stars become famous. And Lochte wanted to be famous.
He said ridiculous things — his main contribution to literature being “one word describes that race: ‘Jeah!’” — in the hope they would make him famous. He tried to become “The Bachelor” in the hope that would make him famous. He did a much-smaller scale but similarly ridiculous reality TV show — Episode 5: What would Ryan Lochte do … in Hollywood? — in the hope it would make him famous. He bleached his hair blonde (only to see it turn slightly green after clashing with the pool’s chlorine) in the hope that would make him famous.
When his Olympics ended — one gold medal for swimming the 4x200m freestyle relay — he scheduled as many interviews as he could get. He talked about how he was sure (pretty sure) that Michael Phelps would come back for the Tokyo Games in 2020. He said he wanted to come back for those Games himself. He talked about leaving sleepy Charlotte and moving out to California. West Coast life, jeah! He talked about, well, whatever anyone wanted to talk about.
He also announced that he’s on Tinder.
Sunday morning, at the end of a bleary stretch of partying, Ryan Lochte and three swimming teammates got into a prolonged dispute with a couple of guards at a gas station. The details, even now, even with security camera footage, are sketchy. There was, best anyone can tell, some vandalism and a gun, and money definitely changed hands. Was it citizen justice? A robbery? A shakedown? Your mileage may vary.
Whatever happened it unquestionably was not the story Lochte decided to tell — one of fake police and guns to the head and our hero muttering “Whatever” as he hipster-stared down the danger.
One of the questions you hear most here in Brazil is: Why? Why would Ryan Lochte tell any story at all? Why wouldn’t he just let whatever happened fade away with the hope that it never came up again?
But this is the easiest question in the world to answer: He’s Ryan Lochte. He’s a man who would swim one hundred 100-meter races at full speed, a man who would do a reality TV episode called “What would Ryan Lochte do … if he got plastered?,” a man whose bizarre hair color screamed out his hunger for fame. Now, he had a story that people actually wanted to hear, a chilling story that would make international headlines and put him at the top of newscasts across the world and make him the man of the hour.
With that in mind, what were the chances that Ryan Lochte would NOT tell that story — as big and bold and self-aggrandizing as he could make it?
Fame and infamy are not opposites; this is what you learn as you grow older. They are twin brothers, the sort few can tell apart. And so now, yes, the world mocks and tears apart Ryan Lochte.
“Ryan Lochte is the dumbest bell that ever rang,” Sally Jenkins writes in The Washington Post.
“Ryan Lochte — Ugly American with a truly ugly hairstyle — did it,” Mike Vaccaro wrote in the New York Post.
“First, pretend you are stupid,” Bruce Arthur led off his column explaining Lochte to readers of The Star in Toronto.
“Here,” The Daily Mail reported, “we chart how Lochte turned Saturday night and Sunday morning into hours and hours of shame for his nation.”
And so on. It will get worse. USA Swimming will be heard from. Sponsors will have to back away from him. Friday, Lochte put out a statement that some will view as a heartfelt expression of regret and others will see as a muted half-apology. Mostly, it expresses the inner struggle for Lochte to both be sorry and be defiant.
“I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend,” it begins.
“It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave …” it continues.
“Of worldly fame is but a blast of wind,” Dante Alighieri wrote more than 700 years ago, “That blows from diverse points, and shifts its name.”
Whatever. Ryan Lochte was only doing that thing he had been doing all his life, that most American of things — chasing fame. He’s now very famous. It probably doesn’t feel like he thought.