What Did Ryan Lochte Really Do?

Ryan Lochte

The Rio Olympics were decidedly boring until the Ryan Lochte affair. True to form, the media pounced on it. In one sensational headline after another, they rushed to judgement, universally condemning the swimmer as a disgrace to his country. And skittish sponsors followed close behind.

What did the 12-time Olympic medalist really do? It looks like after a long night of partying, he apparently relieved himself behind a gas station and tore down an advertisement. According to an in-depth investigation by USA Today Sports, corroborated by a witness and fellow swimmer Gunnar Bentz, that’s about it.

Almost forgot: he also exaggerated the story. But then, who hasn’t in this sordid mess?

It now appears that nobody actually entered the gas station restroom, let alone broke down the door and vandalized a mirror and a soap dispenser, as the Rio police chief claimed at a news conference. And it seems the four swimmers were shaken down by police with guns moonlighting as security guards.

Granted, you might not call that being robbed at gunpoint, as Lochte originally claimed, but then, I bet you’ve never had a gun pointed at you or been threatened by police in a foreign country, as I have. Let me tell you, it feels just like that. It’s pretty scary stuff.

And in an interview on Saturday, Lochte came clean on what really happened that morning. His account of events is entirely consistent with those of Bentz, the witness and surveillance videos.

The question is, what is Lochte actually guilty of? Was he dumb to get that intoxicated in a foreign country, tear down a sign and try to cover his tracks? Absolutely. The guards were happy with their $50 payday, courtesy of the impaired swimmers. Had Lochte kept his mouth shut, nobody would have known what happened. It was an unforced error.

Why did he do it? Maybe he was still drunk. Maybe he was scared. Who the heck knows? I’m sure none of us have ever done anything dumb when we were young, tried to hide what happened and only ended up making things worse. I’m sure none of the fine journalists who called Lochte a disgrace have ever done something they regret.

As a former high-tech executive who made a living travelling to foreign countries and negotiating high-stakes deals with big corporations, I can tell you that many if not most executives I’ve known have had similar experiences they were less than proud to admit. I’ll even cop to having been there myself … and in Brazil, of all places.

There’s even an age-old expression for it: What happens on the road, stays on the road.

Meanwhile, the USA Today story punches all kinds of holes in Rio police accusations that Lochte and teammate Jimmy Feigen filed a false police report, a charge that Feigen coughed up $11,000 to avoid. I don’t know what they call that in Brazil, but around these parts, we call it extortion.

I’ve heard some commentators call the interview where Lochte talked openly about what really happened an insincere non-apology. They must have been watching a different video than the one I saw. The swimmer seemed genuinely remorseful for letting down his teammates and fans and took full responsibility for his “immature behavior.”

But one thing the young man said did rub me the wrong way. Lochte said his actions took the focus away from the athletes. While I agree that his behavior was immature, the media has sole discretion over what it chooses to report. The media chose to go with eyeball catching headlines instead of the Olympic events. That’s on them and their audience, not Lochte.

Perhaps the most disingenuous players in this farce were the Rio authorities. The games were marred by security and health issues, from incidents of athletes truly being robbed at gunpoint to journalists apparently being fired upon by unknown assailants. I get that they didn’t need another incident to throw fuel on the fire, but their hands are far from clean in this sordid affair.