It took a weatherman to call an Olympian liar a liar. Last Friday night, the lawyer for American Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte was quoted in the press saying his client hadn’t lied about being held up at gunpoint at a gas station at the Rio Olympics after a night of celebratory partying, though available evidence seemed to show otherwise.
Lochte’s mom first told the world about her son’s harrowing experience in a dangerous city. TV host Billy Bush, spotting Lochte on a Rio beach, used his iPhone to record an interview to get the swimmer’s version of the story. And then the lies began to unravel.
Rio officials went digging and Lochte and Olympic pals James Feigen, Jack Conger, and Gunnar Bentz were soon accused of vandalism and destroying a sign at a Rio gas station. Evidence from security cameras showed the athletes were stopped by armed security guards and allegedly told to hand over cash to pay for the damage on the spot. But Lochte held to his story—sort of.
Al Roker, America’s favorite weatherman and most unlikely prosecutor, wouldn’t step back this weekend from an on-air fight with Bush, as Roker insisted that Lochte be called a liar rather than an embellisher of false claims.
If you read the initial coverage of Lochtegate, the mainstream American media quickly slapped the white-male-privilege analysis on the events. Then there were claims of a perpetual juvenile psyche and theories that Lochte is just one of those man-child types we all know today. Others portrayed Lochte as a publicity-loving athlete who can’t help but spin a savvy tale of (false) heroics (“The other swimmers got down on the ground but I refused,” he claimed).
But this inadvertent reality TV star forgot one important thing every millennial should know by now: there are cameras—and camera phones—nearly everywhere on this planet, even one in the hand of just about every athlete at the opening ceremonies. Cameras are mounted outside clubs where high profile celebrity athletes party and even gas stations have their own surveillance technology. And so the lying began.
NBC’s Matt Lauer, who scored the big Lochte sit-down apology interview, seemed willing to play the role of the chiding parent during the interview, letting Lochte spin his new and improved web of fortified half-truths. There were opportunities for gentle self-flagellation and sniffles. Lochte told Lauer that he had “learned some valuable lessons” but he’s still not sure how to describe what happened, since there are so many different ways to explain it, as the New York Times noted:
“Whether you call it a robbery or whether you call it extortion or us paying just for the damages. We don’t know,” Lochte told Matt Lauer Saturday night. “All we know is there was a gun pointed in our direction and we were demanded to give money.”
Roker, however, made the story clear and simple for Bush and everyone else:
“He lied,” Roker, usually the cheerful weatherman, said insistently. “He lied to you. He lied to Matt Lauer. He lied to his mom. He left his teammates hanging while he skedaddled.”
Bush, who couldn’t bring himself to see a full-on sham in Lochte’s tale because he “isn’t the greatest weaver of fantastic tales” eventually agreed that Lochte had “certainly lied about some details.”
Worse, Lochte abandoned his friends. Lochte told Lauer he “took full responsibility” for the incident—but it was his friends who were left in Rio to deal with the fallout and fend for themselves with Brazilian authorities all without the benefit of the man who made the initial fictitious claims. As the gas station video footage shows, Lochte clearly realized he had gotten himself into a little trouble and immediately walks off into the night. The other swimmers stay to pay for the damages that Lochte has since said none of them were responsible for.
When Lauer asked Lochte how he felt watching his scared teammates, Jack and Gunnar, get pulled off a plane for further investigation in Rio, the Olympian said:
“Hurt. . . . I let my team down and you know . . . I don’t want them to think that I left. . . . They were my teammates. . . . I wanted to definitely be there and I wanted to help out any way I could.”
But he didn’t.
There is a moment in the movie Chariots of Fire when Scottish runner Eric Liddell is hauled before the Prince of Wales, and the president and chairman of the British Olympic Association, to discuss his unwillingness to participate in the 100-meter heats in the 1924 Olympics, because it was being held on the Christian Sabbath. Liddell was invited in for a “little chat” to try to resolve the situation. Despite some arm twisting Liddell stands strong and the meeting seems likely to end in stalemate, until the affable Lord Lindsey (Liddell’s friend) bursts into the room uninvited to suggest a possible solution to the problem—giving up his slot in another race to his friend Liddell. Liddell went on to win the gold medal.
Movies aren’t real life. Real life is messier and riddled with misdeeds, major misjudgments, and minor mistakes. But in real life, if we are lucky, we have devoted and honorable friends. Friends don’t back away in the dark of night abandoning us to our worst fate; they burst into a room to straighten out the mess so that we may see another, better day.