Column: What We Can Learn From The Ryan Lochte AffairSeptember 1, 2016
Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist in swimming - six gold, three silver and three bronze – created a firestorm that took on a life of its own, one that seemingly won’t die.
By now, it’s hard to find an American who can’t recount the circumstances that gave rise to the controversy. Lochte and fellow Olympian Jimmy Feigen claimed they, along with U.S. swimmers Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger, were robbed at gunpoint on the night of August 14 during a night on the town in Rio. The perpetrators, according to Lochte, were Rio police.
However, almost immediately Lochte began backtracking from his original narrative, finally admitting that he had concocted the story - “over-exaggerated,” in Lochte’s words - in an attempt to cover up his juvenile transgressions. The group had been confronted by a security guard after they vandalized a Rio gas station. After fleeing Brazil ahead of the authorities, who wanted him held for court proceedings, Lochte went on national television to “clear the air” and apologize, sort of. Rather than take full responsibility, Lochte blamed his drinking.
The Lochte affair proved once again that scandal sells. It dominated every television network, newspaper, website and social media platform in this country, in the process taking the spotlight away from the stunning achievements of the U.S. Olympic delegation. The initial recounting of the incident played into the pre-Olympic fears and predictions that the conditions in Rio were unsafe and the athletes were in danger. Only none of it was true.
Lochte’s success in the pool made him famous, not to mention wealthy. He has raked in millions in corporate sponsorships and endorsements. But now many of those lucrative revenue sources have deserted him. Companies such as Speedo, Ralph Lauren, Gentle Hair Removal and Japanese mattress manufacturer Airweave terminated their relationships with Lochte for violating the personal conduct clauses in his contract. What now for the former golden boy? Rather than capitalizing on his fame and expected marketability, Lochte is left to ponder what might have been.
Although Olympic athletes are reimbursed for some of their training expenses they aren’t compensated for their performance. Their income is based on the aforementioned sponsorships and endorsements, along with speaking engagements. Mike Eruzione was the captain of the U.S. hockey team that won a gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics Games in Lake Placid, New York. The Cinderella team of collegiate players defeated the favored Russians in the semifinals and then beat Sweden in the finals. Eruzione and his teammates became the subjects of books, a movie and became the darlings of the entire country. Eruzione is fond of saying that he hasn’t worked a day since, living handsomely on endorsements and speaking engagements. Lochte effectively threw all of that away, at least in the short term.
But as much as Americans love to see the high and mighty fall, we also believe in comebacks, redemption and transformation. Few of us escape this life without having a lapse or two in judgement or doing something inappropriate. The key is how quickly and honestly we respond to those incidents. Michael Phelps, Lochte’s Olympic teammate, has dealt with not one but several personal controversies. In 2009 a photograph of Phelps holding a bong went viral. The incident brought a three month suspension from USA Swimming and cost him a sponsorship with the Kellogg Company. Rather than deny the obvious, Phelps took full responsibility for the incident and issued a public apology for his “inappropriate” behavior. He was also arrested twice for DWI, once in 2004 and again in 2014. The second arrest resulted in another suspension from USA Swimming, this time for six months.
Phelps was able to rebound from his personal transgressions in part because his apologies, coupled with his community activity following each incident, seemed sincere. He is now the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals, including 23 gold. Unlike Phelps, Tonya Harding, another Olympian who physically attacked teammate Nancy Kerrigan in an attempt to enhance her Olympic prospects, never accepted responsibility for her actions. By failing to do so, Harding became an infamous note to history.
The challenge for Lochte is to emulate Michael Phelps, not Tonya Harding.