Ryan Lochte leaves USA Swimming smoldering in his wake

Pat Forde

Medal count | Olympic schedule | Olympic news

RIO DE JANEIRO – The United States Olympic Committee, in the midst of a spectacular all-around performance by its athletes, took time Thursday night to apologize to the Brazilian people.

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USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus, whose health is not good, took time Thursday night to register his regrets.

Ryan Lochte, the man at the center of the situation generating the apologies, finally got around to one of his own Friday morning. It was a statement that went through the P.R. car wash, rinsed, scrubbed and spit-shined into a verbiage not readily associated with the former reality TV star.

But Lochte is only the one millionth athlete to do that. While there were some excessive rationalizations and twisted logic within the statement – if he waited to apologize until the situation had resolved itself, why was he talking to Matt Lauer and TMZ earlier this week? – he at least owned up to screwing up.

We are a forgiving society. That’s a good thing, because most of us need it that way.

There was some question whether he’d ever get around to it because in his airy head he seemed convinced he was the victim of a robbery more than the perpetrator of an international hoax. That stance helped empty his personal bandwagon very quickly this week.

Ryan Lochte claimed he was robbed at gunpoint. (Reuters)
Ryan Lochte claimed he was robbed at gunpoint. (Reuters)

One of the major issues with this entire saga was that it undercut one of the greatest American swimming performances of all time. Think of the images U.S. swimmers created in Rio last week:

Michael Phelps in tears as he authors a five-gold-medal goodbye to the sport he has dominated like no other human.

Katie Ledecky in tears after what might have been the most powerful Olympic performance ever by a female swimmer.

The open-mouthed delight of Simone Manuel, trailblazing gold medalist, and Maya DiRado, underdog gold medalist who shocked a seemingly unbeatable rival.

The dazzling international arrival of Ryan Murphy, with three gold medals and a world record.

The blunt fearlessness of Lilly King to speak her mind about a performance-enhancing drug user, then back it up by beating her.

The glowing smile of SuperMom Dana Vollmer, winning medals less than 18 months after giving birth.

The booming voice of Elizabeth Beisel, whose Olympic competition ended with a lackluster performance on the first day but continued as the chief American cheerleader every day thereafter.

So many good stories. And what is the biggest takeaway from Rio for a lot of people? The Lochte debacle.

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No wonder so many people associated with USA Swimming are privately furious with the 12-time Olympic medalist. At 32, Lochte wants to continue competitive swimming and remains a potentially valuable member of the U.S. National Team – with Phelps retiring, he is by far the top American in the 200 individual medley, for instance. But he almost certainly will face substantial discipline from USA Swimming, not to mention some personal resistance from a lot of people whose opinions matter.

Some former American Olympians are less private about it – Rowdy Gaines and Summer Sanders expressed their feelings on Twitter, calling for a Lochte apology. Troy Dalbey, who was Lochte before Lochte, weighed in as the voice of unpleasant experience.

When the American team wins 33 medals, 16 of them gold, and the primary talking point becomes ugly American Lochte, drunk Lochte, vandal Lochte, fabricator/exaggerator Lochte and detained Lochte sidekicks, that will engender hard feelings. Swimming bathes in a bright but brief spotlight for about eight days every four years, with a window afterward to reap the benefits of that short-lived fame.

To quote Everclear, so much for the afterglow.

I’ve never known Ryan Lochte to be a malicious guy. Not the brightest, but largely harmless. But in this instance he has done damage to people other than himself and he should take ownership of that.

Upon returning to the United States, every Olympian is going to hear questions and wisecracks about what really happened with Lochte and the boys on the infamous night in question. That’s now inevitable.

But nobody is bringing home more baggage from this affair than Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger, the two youngest members of Lochte’s Foolish Four. The 20-year-old Bentz and 21-year-old Conger have learned the destructive power of a single bad decision – the decision to go along with Ryan Lochte when he goes out to blow off post-Olympic steam.

In exchange for hanging with one of the legends of their sport, Bentz and Conger got the following: an extended and involuntary stay in Brazil, at the behest of an insulted nation wanting to make someone pay; repeated perp walks in front of the international media, without ever being charged with doing anything wrong; and becoming the somber young faces appearing endlessly on TV and the internet. They may not be completely blameless, but they certainly were left in the worst situation.

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It was impossible to look at Bentz and Conger on parade and remember they actually won gold medals as members of the American 800 freestyle relay. Their Olympic experience had been completely hijacked by the destructive power of a single bad decision.

From left, Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps from the United States celebrate winning the gold medal in the men’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
From left, Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps from the United States celebrate winning the gold medal in the men’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

While they were on the griddle, the fourth swimmer, Jimmy Feigen, at least stayed off-air. But he’s in more trouble than they are, having joined Lochte in filing the police report alleging robbery. Feigen, 26, still is in Brazil, and reportedly will have to pay a sizable amount of cash to buy his way out of legal trouble.

Meanwhile, Lochte has spent the week at home in the United States doubling down on a dubious story that his party pals ultimately refuted.

His boys remained behind to serve as piñatas for the Brazilian legal system and media to bat around. The governing body of his sport was voicing its displeasure. The head of the American Olympic movement was apologizing for his actions.

Fortunately, Ryan Lochte got around to some public accountability for what went wrong in Rio. He had to, before he was the only person left on his own bandwagon.

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