RIO DE JANEIRO – U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte apologized Friday for his behavior surrounding an incident at a Rio de Janeiro gas station, saying he should have been more “careful and candid” about how he described what happened after a night of partying with his teammates.
But he didn’t explain why he embellished details of an encounter with armed security guards and called it a robbery, and why he omitted to say that he and three teammates had vandalized a gas station restroom.
“Regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself and for that am sorry,” Lochte said in a lengthy post on his Instagram account. “This was a situation that could and should have been avoided. I accept responsibility for my role in this happening and have learned some valuable lessons.”
Whatever they were, for now, he’s keeping them to himself.
The situation raises questions about the future for Lochte, who is planning to take time off from swimming but wants to return to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Usually known for his party boy image and love of the limelight, he now is facing a line of nervous sponsors, the possibility of legal charges in Brazil and sanctions from USA Swimming and the International Olympic Committee.
The robbery flap deeply hurt Brazilians, who were eager to prove they could get street crime under control and host a safe Olympics. And it overshadowed the efforts of U.S. Olympians, who have dominated the medal count. Swimmers alone piled up 16 golds and 33 medals total at the games.
Known for his outsized personality and regular ‘bro’ behavior, Lochte has always been about having fun. This is the guy who gleefully admitted eating McDonald’s three times a day while winning four medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. For Rio, he dyed his dark hair white, not realizing the pool’s chlorine would turn it light green.
His memorable props – diamond grills on his teeth on the medal podium, crazily colored high-tops, sunglasses bearing his favorite made-up expression of “Jeah!” – and easygoing, goofy nature has made him a popular and relatable star with the public and his teammates.
“I think that is why I do so many different things with the hair, the grills, the crazy shoes,” he said in Rio, “It’s just my personality coming out there.”
Lochte’s success led to his own 2013 reality TV show called “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” It had a short run and left some viewers with the impression that its star was nothing more than a good-looking dim bulb. Still, lines for his autograph sessions at meets routinely stretch longer than anyone else’s.
As hard as he plays, Lochte works hard, too. His 12 Olympic medals are second only to Michael Phelps among U.S. male Olympians.
This time Lochte was only a small part of the show. He finished fifth in his only individual event and swam on the victorious 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Instead, the biggest memory of the 32-year-old swimmer in Rio will be the grainy security video of him and teammates Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen exiting the gas station restroom and sitting on the ground, some with hands up.
Like other pro swimmers, Lochte is reliant on sponsors to foot his bills so he can focus on year-round training and travel to meets without having to hold a regular job.
His sponsors, including Speedo, Ralph Lauren and Airweave premium bedding, have been in no hurry to cut ties with him, though have said they are monitoring the situation.
The incident feeds a lot of American cliches of the bad-boy athlete, and while it was relatively minor, it is “unsavory,” says Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer at the brand consulting firm Landor.
Ordahl believes it’s probably a good idea for companies to hold off on making decisions until the issue surrounding the dispute is sorted out. But he suspects that eventually, sponsors will probably drop Lochte.
“The truth is that there are enough celebrities to be attached to without bringing that kind of baggage with you,” said Robert Passikoff, president and founder of the research firm Brand Keys.
USA Swimming is expected to convene its executive board to discuss likely punishment, as it did when Michael Phelps was arrested for a second DUI two years ago. Technically, the four could be fined, suspended or expelled. In the Phelps case, the board announced a week after the arrest that it was suspending the sport’s biggest star for six months, banning him from competing in the 2015 world championships and taking away six months of his funding stipend.
For Phelps, it was his third strike.
This is Lochte’s first major gaffe, and whatever sanctions the national governing body passes down could have little effect on the professional swimmer. He’s already said he plans to take the first extensive break of his career following the Olympics and move from North Carolina to California. A suspension could keep him out of next year’s world championships – often bereft of big stars following an Olympic year – and the Arena Pro Swim Series, a five-meet circuit in the U.S. But that would hardly impact Lochte should he decide to resume training for the 2020 games.
As for the other three, Feigen has indicated he would retire after Rio and the 26-year-old is looking forward to attending law school somewhere in Texas. He made a $10,800 payment to a Rio charity that teaches martial arts to poor children after the incident, and his passport was returned. He left Brazil Friday night.
Bentz and Conger stumbled just as they were getting started on the international stage, so the repercussions could linger longest with the Olympic rookies. They, along with Feigen, swam in preliminary heats, and earned gold medals when their teammates won relays in the finals.
They returned home to the U.S. Friday.
Bentz will be a 20-year-old junior majoring in business at Georgia this fall and Conger will be a 21-year-old senior majoring in corporate communication at Texas. They remain amateurs and presumably will continue their NCAA careers with their respective programs, which also could hand out punishment.
What may take longer for everyone to forget is how the four stole the spotlight.
“While we are thankful our athletes are safe, we do not condone the lapse in judgment and conduct that led us to this point,” USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus said. “It is not representative of what is expected as Olympians, as Americans, as swimmers and as individuals.”
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