Ryan Lochte’s story about being robbed in Rio has become a shiny distraction from the Olympics and dragged three other swimmers into the muck, but what’s the truth? Michael Sohn AP
Ryan Lochte’s story about being robbed in Rio has become a shiny distraction from the Olympics and dragged three other swimmers into the muck, but what’s the truth? Michael Sohn AP

Scott Fowler

Now swimmer Ryan Lochte’s breakup with Charlotte looks like perfect timing

August 18, 2016 11:04 AM

UPDATED August 18, 2016 07:12 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO

Ryan Lochte’s timing could not have been worse in a lot of ways over the past week. But in one way, it was absolutely perfect.

Lochte had a press conference in Rio last Friday, just after his Olympics had ended. In that press conference, he broke up with Charlotte. He said he was going to move from Charlotte to the West Coast as soon as he got back from an extended vacation and that, when he began training again, he would likely make his home base either California or Gainesville, Fla.

About 36 hours after that, Lochte was involved in a night that will color the perception that many people have of him for the rest of his life. If what we heard from the Brazilian police on Thursday is true, Lochte owes an apology to the people in Rio for his role in what has become an international incident. That’s both the right thing to do and the right way to mitigate some of the diplomatic damage.

But the endorsements he’s going to lose from this – those are going away no matter what. Can you imagine wanting to sponsor Ryan Lochte now?

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And despite Lochte’s plans to move, could you have imagined Charlotte shying away from a 12-time Olympic medalist? Until the past few days, when Lochte’s residence started to seem very much like an albatross for the Queen City, that seemed unlikely.

If Lochte needs any help loading the moving van, I’m sure there are a lot of people who would be happy to lend a hand.

‘Robbery’ contradicted

This strange, twisting story took another couple of left turns on Thursday, mostly because of a press conference held by Rio’s head of Civil Police – a man named Fernando Veloso – in which nearly everything Lochte has said about the “robbery” was contradicted.

On Sunday, Lochte gave NBC a chilling description of how he and three U.S. Olympic swimming teammates were robbed at gunpoint. That story was gradually called into question over the next few days until, on Thursday, Veloso said it was an outright lie.

The police said based on their investigation that the swimmers were not victims at all but had instead vandalized a gas station and then tried to leave in a cab.

They were then stopped by a security guard who pulled out his gun to control the situation and what Veloso described as an “angry” and “intoxicated” Lochte. The swimmers ended up paying for some of the damage at that point, Veloso said.

Did Lochte or any of the other swimmers really think he was being robbed or extorted by the security guard? Why would you vandalize a gas station? And why would Lochte, 32 and one of the highest-profile athletes on the U.S. Olympic team, get involved with any of this?

Brazilian officials don’t know, because Lochte flew home to America earlier this week before they could seize his passport and ask him more questions, which they wanted to do. His lawyer has told other media outlets that Lochte had no idea he was supposed to stick around.

When I texted Lochte’s mother, Ileana, on Sunday and asked what was going on, she texted back about her son: “Not really sure what happened but he is OK and really that is all I care about.”

Lochte’s mother has since gone silent, which is what her son should have done to begin with – but it’s too late to put that genie back in the bottle.

Leaving his friends behind

In the meantime, Lochte’s three friends were still stuck in Rio de Janeiro, in the middle of everything, with Lochte 4,700 miles away. Two of them – Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz – were pulled off a flight from Rio to Atlanta Wednesday night to answer more questions. One of them – and, oddly, Veloso did not know which one – had told the police that the original story was a lie, according to the police.

The story is undeniably titillating. Millions of people are reveling in it.

Lochte has enjoyed publicity for years. He once starred in an awful reality show, developed a catchphrase (”Jeah”) and painted his hair silvery-blue before the Olympics. Now he has the international fame he always wanted, but for a reason he never wanted.

As hot as the story seems to be right now, let’s take a step back and think what it doesn’t involve.

No one died. No one even bled. This is ultimately a distraction – embarrassing to many, physically harmful to none. It will blow over.

And I would bet you that no one – not Lochte, nor his teammates, nor anyone else – ever does a day of jail time. I say that despite the Brazilian police making noise like they will indict Lochte and Jimmy Feigen (Lochte’s Olympic teammate and also his teammate at SwimMAC Carolina for the past year) for falsely reporting a crime.

For some reason, the whole thing makes me think of Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” screaming: “You can’t handle the truth!”

But what is the truth? Even after Thursday’s police press conference, there were plenty of questions.

What I do know for sure is that this is a mess. And that Lochte should apologize for something. And that Charlotte is very lucky that Lochte declared he was breaking up with the city just before it all happened.

This is a story that is overwhelming the second half of the Olympics. Charlotte would be wise to stay as far away from it – and from Lochte – as possible.