Sink or Swim
Most Olympic stories begin at the bottom and end at the top. As trite as that may sound, the vast majority of sports columnists love to record the exploits of individuals from humble beginnings whose struggles to reach the peak of their profession have inspired a nation. And sports fans — equally obsessed with star power and starved for a good story — love to read about them.
However, there are some stories that are beyond the pale. In effect, they go in the opposite direction, namely by starting at the top and working their way down. Defying logic, this specific Olympic story keeps to that premise: How an American gold-medalist, when confronted with a situation of his own doing, dealt with the consequences of his actions; how the host nation reacted to this alternate version of events; and how the whole dirty business got twisted out of proportion until what was heard no longer resembled the original event.
The Greeks cloaked their stories in life-lessons known as myths. For our purpose, then, let us recount the myth of Icarus. Vain from birth and pampered by wealth and privilege, young Icarus was uninterested in bettering himself. He could be found lounging about his quarters, endlessly admiring his looks and build. On the opposing side, his cousin Talos (called Perdix in some versions) believed in the value of hard work. Industrious to a fault, Talos was quick-witted and eager to learn, whereas Icarus was lazy and indolent.
It happened that Talos’ uncle Daedalus, the father of Icarus, was an extremely clever man. He was so intelligent that the citizens of Athens considered him to be the cleverest craftsman in all of Greece. Because of his nephew’s unique abilities, Daedalus was forced to take Talos on as an apprentice. Before long, word got out that Talos was a genius whose talent outshone that of his uncle: he was credited with the invention of the first saw, along with the first potter’s wheel and the first pair of compasses. Soon, Daedalus’ customers began to take their problems to Talos. Jealousy and spite eventually got the better of our master craftsman, who lured his unsuspecting nephew to the top of Athena’s temple and pushed him over the edge to his demise.
As punishment for his crime, Daedalus and Icarus were banished from Athens under penalty of death. The two fled to the island of Crete, where Daedalus’ engineering skills were employed by King Minos in constructing a labyrinth to house a monstrous beast known as the Minotaur. Unfortunately for Daedalus, an incredibly shrewd young man by the name of Theseus succeeded in killing the Minotaur and escaping the purportedly escape-proof maze.
The angry Minos took revenge on Daedalus and his son by throwing them into prison (in some accounts, they took the Minotaur’s place and were forced to wander aimlessly in the lair). Faced with certain death, Daedalus struggled to find a way off the island. What scheme could he possibly come up with that would lead him and young Icarus to freedom?
When sports-minded Ryan Steven Lochte was a boy, he did not take seriously to swimming. Born in Rochester, New York, on August 3, 1984, Ryan took his first dive long before he entered nursery school. Shortly after the family relocated to Gainesville, Florida, Ryan’s father Steve (as well as his mother Ileana) decided on coaching as a full-time profession. Local and/or family lore had it that Ryan enjoyed goofing off (and giving lip service to others) more than perfecting his backstroke.
“Ryan was all about racing,” his father admitted to ESPN Magazine. “He hated practice, but when I said ‘OK, we’re going to do a time trial,’ he’d be the first one on the starting blocks.”
In order to channel his son’s excess energy, as he called it, into more constructive pursuits, Steve would make a contest out of everyday activities such as who could swallow their milk the fastest or who could beat the other in fetching the mail or the newspaper. It wasn’t until Ryan reached high school that swimming became an obsession.
Finally getting his act together (for the moment, at least), Ryan was accepted into the exclusive University of Florida swimming program. Under head coach Gregg Troy’s tutelage from 2002 to 2013 (to include the three years he trained for his post-graduate work), Lochte was twice named NCAA swimmer of the year, which was quite a turnaround from his former lack of interest. He went on to qualify for his first Olympics in 2004 at the age of nineteen. It was at the Athens Olympics that he raced against his soon-to-be rival, Michael Phelps — a rivalry that challenged both athletes to perform at their best.
“I think it’s one of the greatest rivalries in sport, me and him, just for what we’ve both done in the sport of swimming,” Ryan argued. “He’s the toughest competitor out there.”
Phelps pled guilty to that claim. “Him and I together have had a pretty decent rivalry back and forth. We’ve been able to really push each other … During the big meets, we have great races. We’re right there with each other, in the middle of the pool, probably a couple of tenths [of a second] apart.” It was also at Athens 2004 that Lochte met and would become friends with another future Olympic champion, the eighteen-year-old Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira.
Ryan became the second most decorated male Olympian (after Phelps) in London 2012, where he picked up two gold medals and two silvers. Pereira fared well there, too, taking on both Phelps and Lochte in the 400 meter medley for a second-place finish. Despite Coach Troy’s displeasure at Ryan’s “lack of focus” before, during, and after the games, the talented Lochte outdid himself. He may not have slain the mighty Minotaur, but he was on his way to besting him.
With his newfound celebrity status assured, Ryan took a break from competition. He signed to star in a reality TV show for the E! Network, with the throwaway header of What Would Ryan Lochte Do? The show, which premiered on April 21, 2013, exploited his unfortunate reputation as an intellectual lightweight, a partygoer, and an eligible bachelor.
What the E! Network may have been hoping for was a combination of Jessica Simpson’s clueless naiveté with Big Brother voyeurism; what it got was frat-boy foolishness. For instance, the episodes boasted such empty-headed titles as “What Would Ryan Lochte Do With a TV Show,” or “If He Got Plastered?” or “On Spring Break?” Seeing as the general level of the series matched the suspected vapidity of its star, the answer to these queries was, “Who cares?” Not surprisingly, the show sunk in the ratings and was canceled after eight episodes.
A lengthy period of injuries and minor inconveniences followed, along with on-again, off-again, now on-again training and competing — pencil in a stab at creating his own clothing line (“Ralph Lauren, but with a little edge to it,” Lochte was fond of saying). While living and training in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ryan finally secured a spot with Team USA for his fourth Olympic Games in Rio 2016. He did it by inching ever closer to Michael Phelps.
If there was anyone on Team USA who could force Ryan Lochte to swim against the tide, that person would be Phelps. According to the online SwimSwam Website, this was the third Olympic trials in a row where Ryan wound up in second place behind Phelps. It would also be the fourth time that the 200 meter individual medley would be decided in favor of Phelps over Lochte.
In a self-deprecating mood, Ryan half-jokingly insisted, “I guess you would say I’d be like the Michael Phelps of swimming if he wasn’t there.” In that same 200 meter medley, local favorite Thiago Pereira was in the lead through the butterfly and backstroke, as reported in The Guardian, “but Phelps, as inexorable as the incoming tide, pulled so far ahead on the breaststroke that no one got close during the final freestyle.” Thiago finished seventh, with Lochte in fifth place.
On Tuesday, August 9, Ryan had won his first gold medal in Rio in the men’s 4×200 relay with the help of teammates Phelps, Townley Haas, and Conor Dwyer. With competition over for the men’s swimming team on Saturday, August 13, it was time for a little merrymaking.
Early Sunday morning, Ryan Lochte and three other members of Team USA, swimmers Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen, left a party at Club France, the hospitality house for the French Olympic and Sports Committee in Rio, a gathering that Thiago Pereira and his wife, Gabriela Pauletti, had also attended. It was a birthday party for a mutual friend, so claimed Thiago’s spokesperson Flavio Perez, who spoke to the Washington Post.
“Lochte was also in the same place, commemorating the same birthday. Ryan and Thiago are friends. Thiago and his wife left earlier, they left alone, the two of them. Thiago and his wife went back to their hotel.”
After leaving the party, Ryan and the above-named team members took a taxi back to their rooms in the Olympic Village. Along the way, the taxi stopped at a filling station. What happened next became a matter of conjecture.
“We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge,” Lochte told NBC-TV Today Show commentator, Billy Bush, later that same day. “They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground — they got down on the ground. I refused and I was like we didn’t do anything wrong, so I’m not getting down on the ground. And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, ‘Get down,’ and I put my hands up, I was like ‘whatever.’ He took our money, he took my wallet, he left my cell phone, he left my credentials.”
The story began to flood the airwaves. Oh, it was believable enough as told. Anyone who has lived in or spent time in both Rio and São Paulo, or any large city in Brazil, has experienced some form of assault or robbery with or without a weapon, even kidnapping. There was nothing odd or improper about it, just another night out on the town, with the expected results.
When Lochte unveiled his story on Sunday, he was still in Brazil. Almost immediately, the civil police opened an investigation into the incident. Surely, any kind of reporting that seemed to bash host city Rio or spread so-called “bad press” about mounting crime in the country was grist for the news mill. Those wanting some form of validation that Brazil was incapable of governing itself, let alone controlling the rampant lawlessness of drug gangs and wrongdoers (“even with eighty-five thousand soldiers and police officers deployed throughout the city,” according to New Yorker columnist Alex Cuadros), had a field day.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) initially denied the report as “false.” They quickly reversed course and tacitly confirmed the incident — based on word of mouth, one had to assume, especially when independent corroboration came from Lochte’s mother. “I think they’re all shaken up,” she told USA Today upon speaking with her son. “There were a few of them. They just took their wallets and basically that was it.”
Naturally, this wasn’t the only crime to have been committed at Rio 2016. There were several high-profile robberies, thefts, and abduction cases reported in the weeks and months leading up to the games, many involving an Australian para-Olympics participant, three Spanish Olympic sailors, a shooting competitor, a judo wrestler, and a New Zealand jiu-jitsu martial arts expert. Who wouldn’t believe such incidents had taken place?
(End of Part Seven)
To be continued…..
Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes