Give Ryan Lochte this much: He went all in on being the knucklehead who hijacked the narrative of the 2016 Olympic Games.
Some 11,000 athletes participated in Rio de Janeiro, at a cost estimated between $11 billion and $20 billion. Factor $9 billion in revenue, and the best-case scenario reveals a $2 billion deficit.
And for what?
Well, the world’s best athletes proved, once again, an ability to coexist for a few weeks. Despite fears that Brazil was a disaster waiting to happen — tens of thousands of tourists visiting a country known for the incompetence of its government, what can possibly go wrong? — the only police incident to draw international attention involved four drunken swimmers desperate to empty their bladders at 6 a.m.
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After winning a gold medal as part of the U.S. trio that gave Michael Phelps a commanding lead for his victory laps in the 4x200 men’s freestyle, Lochte covered all the basics of boorish behavior. He damaged a service station restroom, the act of a vandal. He fabricated a story about being held up at gunpoint, the act of a liar. Then he fled the country, the act of a coward.
On Friday, Lochte issued a vaguely worded apology on his Instagram account, noting “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.”
A much stronger note of contrition would have read something like this: “I accept responsibility for my role as a vandal, a liar and a coward. Because my conduct obscured the terrific performance of all of the athletes who helped make the Rio Games a success, I cannot, in good conscience, keep the gold medal that was given to me.”
Where does a gold medal go when an athlete decides he must renounce it? Maybe it goes to an auction house, with proceeds earmarked for, say, a children’s charity in Rio.
Surrendering the medal achieves symbolic significance on two fronts: It would tell Brazil — sensitive of its reputation as, literally, a tourist trap, a place where visitors to its largest city are potential mugging victims — that the last thing the nation needed was for an American champion to concoct a false story about a robbery.
It also would benefit Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist whose deals with such sponsors as Speedo and Ralph Lauren are now in jeopardy. What’s done is done, and Lochte has proved to be lousy at imagining ways to contrive himself as a victim.
But giving up the medal would represent the kind of sacrifice that’d keep Lochte’s sponsors in his corner. An obvious public-relations ploy, no question. When you break the law, then lie about breaking the law, public-relations ploys should always be in play, no matter how obvious.
I am reminded of gymnast Paul Hamm, who at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens became the first American man to win a gold medal in the all-around. The victory was tainted: A scoring error had deducted points from Yang Tae-young’s effort on the parallel bars during the all-around final. The South Korean legitimately finished first, but because the error was not noticed until the competition had concluded, Hamm returned home with the gold.
Suggestions that Hamm take the highest of high roads, and voluntarily surrender the medal he was presented because of a scoring snafu, were brushed off as naive nonsense. An American gymnast had realized the dream of a lifetime, and in what world does a champion deprive himself the dream of a lifetime because of something so trivial as a scoring error?
Hamm kept his prize, content to be recalled as a gold-medal winner instead of the most sportsmanlike athlete in the history of the Olympic Games.
And then, as the grueling routine of a gymnast took a toll on his shoulders and elbows and knees and ankles, he went away. Upon retiring, Hamm was hired as assistant gymnastics coach at Ohio State.
Five years ago, Hamm got into a late-night scuffle with a taxi driver over heaven knows what. The fare? The driver’s rude aloofness? As something of an expert on late-night taxi rides, I can relate.
But Hamm was accused of assaulting the driver, damaging the cab’s windows and threatening the officers who took him to jail. To the surprise of nobody, Ohio State fired him from his coaching job.
Paul Hamm ranks as America’s most accomplished men’s gymnast, but when was the last time you heard his name? Given the option of possessing a medal achieved on a scoring error or surrendering it in a remarkable display of nobility, he chose to keep the gold and fade away from relevance.
Ryan Lochte has arrived at a similar crossroads. He won his gold fair and square, only to embarrass the country that sent him to Rio and mock the country that served as his host.
Offer it up, dude.
Getting rid of some gold, taking the bold step from crumb to hero, will be the most astute investment you’ll ever make.