Five-Ring Circus

Olympics Jerk Watch: The Swimmer Who Allegedly Fabricated a Brazilian Robbery

Swimmer Ryan Lochte poses for a portrait June 16, 2011, in Palo Alto, California.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Nominee: Ryan Lochte

Home country: United States of America

Known for: Swimming, being an Olympics oaf, inventing a story about getting robbed at gunpoint at a Brazilian gas station.

Why he might be a jerk: Ryan Lochte is a very talented swimmer and three-time Olympian who has won 12 medals in his storied career. He is also a giant oaf. Or maybe he’s just a lunk, or a doofus, or a Faulknerian idiot man-child, or the real-world analogue of Moose from Archie. There are all sorts of unflattering descriptors that might apply to Ryan Lochte. Here are a few more: knucklehead. Big lug. Lummox. Tool. King of the Bros. The inspiration for Goofus’ dimwitted cousin in “Goofus and Gallant.” Professor Dipshit. A real piece of work.

But this is Jerk Watch, not Lunk Watch. So: Is Ryan Lochte a jerk? Let’s weigh the evidence.

This week, Lochte apparently lied to his mother and the world about being robbed in Rio de Janeiro, then left for the United States before the Brazilian police got wise to his shenanigans. I’ll get back to that in a minute. First, though, let’s remember some great moments from Lochte’s maybe-jerky history.

In 2008, he told New York’s blog the Cut that he was really into fashion and hoped to launch a fashion line that would be “a mix of dressy, punk, rapper, surfer, and skateboarder.”

In 2010, he debuted a very ugly signature shoe for Speedo. The shoes were completely covered in green rhinestones, and said “RYAN” and “LOCHTE” in huge yellow letters on their soles. “I’m definitely all into fashion,” he said in a promotional video. “I mean, I love just being, standing out there, just doing something different, just being like, where someone sees me, they’re like, ‘There goes Ryan.’ ”

He starred in a reality show called What Would Ryan Lochte Do? (The answer, apparently, was “Star in a massively unpopular reality show that gets canceled after one season.”)

He attempted to trademark the word jeah, claiming it was his catchphrase, even though the word was first popularized by the Los Angeles rapper MC Eiht.

He wore a ridiculous American-flag grill of his own design on the medals podium at the London Olympics, despite reportedly being asked not to. According to the New York Times, the grill cost $25,000.

Before the London Games, Lochte told ESPN he was looking forward to having lots of sex in the Olympic Village. Surely he was not alone in feeling this way, but—as always with Ryan Lochte, Esq.—the way he expressed himself set the swimmer apart. “My last Olympics, I had a girlfriend—big mistake,” he said. “Now I’m single, so London should be really good. I’m excited.” He also said he was likely to spend a lot of time “hitting a local pub and drinking with the soccer hooligans.”

He has many strong opinions about the relative merits of casual-dating smartphone apps. He told Cosmopolitan he prefers Tinder to the app Bumble because, “with Bumble, the girl always has to make the first [move], and I don’t really like that. I don’t think that’s a woman job. So I got off that.”

Finally, he recently dyed his hair blue.

The latest evidence for Lochte’s jerkiness, and the proximate cause for this Jerk Watch, came after he got out of the pool for the last time at what will likely be his final Olympic Games. On Sunday, various outlets reported that Lochte and three other American swimmers had been robbed when their taxi was stopped by bandits masquerading as policemen. In Lochte’s version of events, the robbers pointed a gun at his head and demanded his valuables. Lochte’s response: “Whatever.” This was a believable story, because it sounds exactly like something Ryan Lochte would say if he were being robbed. It also sounds exactly like something Ryan Lochte would tell people he said if he wanted to convince them he had been robbed.

It now appears Lochte and the other swimmers got drunk and caused a ruckus at a gas station, then urinated all over the gas station, then tried to pay off the people at the gas station, then tried to lie about it when it probably would have been smarter to have said nothing at all. Lochte’s compatriots, American swimmers James Feigen, Gunnar Bentz, and Jack Conger, have had their passports seized and are facing police interrogation. Not Lochte, though: He’s safe at home in America, leaving his teammates to face the music, like a true jerk.

Ryan Lochte reacts as he prepares ahead of the 2012 Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center on May 10, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Why he might not be a jerk: We all know someone like Ryan Lochte: a goofy, outgoing, not-too-bright dude who likes to party and has no shame. These people are generally likable, if occasionally exasperating. Ryan Lochte is generally likable. The shoes with the green rhinestones, the terrible TV show, the sex-having—these are less the actions of a jerk than of an amusing, lunkish, bro-y doofus/knucklehead/oaf.

The fake robbery complicates the “he’s just an oaf” narrative. But still, who among us hasn’t gotten in a bit over our heads, told a tall tale, and then watched helplessly as the situation spirals out of control? If it turns out that Lochte and his friends did get really drunk and break stuff at a Brazilian gas station, then, yes, that is a jerky thing to do. But for me, the subsequent cover-up isn’t jerky so much as stupid and funny and human.

But why did there even need to be a cover-up in the first place? This whole stupid, douche-y ball apparently got rolling because Lochte called his mom to tell her about this ostensible robbery, and then his mom talked to the press. There is an important lesson here for young, aspiring jerks: Never call your mother.

To be clear, I’m not trying to make any apologies for Lochte. There are plenty of others rushing to fill that role. “Let’s give these kids a break—sometimes you take actions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on,” a spokesman for the Rio Games said on Thursday. I’m annoyed by the framing here, because while Lochte acts like a kid, he’s 32 years old. At what age does doofus transition to jerk? If it’s not 32, it’s somewhere in that general range.

I also think it’s fair to imagine that, like many world-class athletes, Lochte is surrounded by people who have a vested interest in infantilizing him. Elite athletes are often freed from worrying about traditional adult responsibilities so they can focus on training. Regular readers will recall the recent Jerk Watch on Sun Yang, the Chinese swimmer who tried to explain away his involvement in a reckless car accident by saying, “Because I have been focusing on training and competition, I had only a hazy knowledge of the law, which led to my mistake.” While I deemed this an objectively terrible excuse, it is also undeniable that swimming as fast as Sun Yang and Ryan Lochte do requires many hours of practice, and monomaniacal focus. If, upon emerging from the pool, these great athletes occasionally do stupid things that indicate a profound estrangement from conventional landlubbing mores, whom should we blame? The swimmers themselves? Yeah, probably.

There are plenty of great swimmers who don’t go around inciting international incidents. In fact, almost none of them do those things. Ryan Lochte stands alone: a famed Olympics oaf; a Zen tool; a blue-haired, sex-liking, mom-calling, Brazil-fleeing weirdo who exasperates as often as he delights, and usually does both at once.

Jerk Score: I’ll give Ryan Lochte 1 out of 3 for style, because those green shoes are truly hideous. 2 out of 3 for technical merit, because as far as I know he has not yet filed a trademark application for the word whatever. 4 out of 3 for consistency, because, like Ryan Lochte, I am very bad at math. And 1 out of 1 in the category of “Did he try to take credit for the work of MC Eiht?” 8 out of 10 for Ryan Lochte.

Previously in Olympics Jerk Watch:

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.