Five-Ring Circus

Ryan Lochte: From Sex Symbol to Oaf in One Olympiad Flat

Ryan Lochte at the Pan Pac swimming competition in Gold Coast, Australia, in 2014.

Patrick Hamilton/AFP/Getty Images

If any member of Team USA was going to cause an international incident, it was always going to be Ryan Lochte. Stupid, stupid-hot Ryan Lochte.

Believe it or not, there was a time not so long ago when Lochte wasn’t a national laughingstock. In the lead-up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a spoiled nation had grown tired of Michael Phelps’ historic medal grabs, and so Lochte stepped in to inherit his mantel. He appeared on the cover of Vogue that May, and in June, the New York Times anointed our new sea king with a fawning profile: “With his twinkling blue eyes, aquiline nose and dimpled smile, Mr. Lochte, 27, is being groomed to be a breakout Olympic superstar, with millions in corporate sponsorships to match his athletic accomplishments.”

Only four years later, we at Slate marked Lochte’s first appearance at the Rio de Janeiro games with the headline, “There He Is, Famed Olympics Oaf Ryan Lochte.” And this was before Lochte and his swimming buddies vandalized a gas station, then concocted a self-serving story about their taxi getting robbed at gunpoint. That’s quite the fall from grace—sex symbol to oaf (albeit oaf with superior ab definition) in just one Olympiad. What changed in the interim? All it took was getting to know Ryan Lochte.

The 2012 games weren’t Lochte’s first, by the way; he was already several medals in and a veteran of Beijing and Athens by the time London rolled around. At the time, his then–new, shorter haircut had refined his image, making him look a little more clean-cut, a little less aqua-stoner. He was ready for his close-up, or at least his sponsors were. In the aforementioned Times profile, one marketing exec is quoted as saying, “He has potential for winning golds, and then just the fact that he’s so damn good-looking. If he can’t beat Michael Phelps in anything else, he can beat him in that category.”

Yes, by all accounts, Lochte looked like he was poised to become our next national hero/crush. But then—well, then he opened his mouth, and out came an assortment of notable quotables, not to mention a $25,000 diamond-studded “grill.” The grill, the catchphrase (“Jeah!”), the sneaker collection, the affinity for rap music—he was that white guy who was obsessed with the flashy trappings of hip-hop while remaining blissfully ignorant of any of the attendant politics. He maintained an inane Twitter account, the perfect social media reflection of his total inability to respond to interview questions intelligently. The then-27-year-old still lived in his college town of Gainesville, Florida, and the media loved to ask him about his dating life, which, by his own mother’s admission, was littered with “one-night stands”—all the more grist for his overgrown frat-boy persona. But not the president of the frat or even an average member: the very, very simple-minded fellow who you thought only existed for the purpose of comic relief in movies. And yet we loved him still, didn’t we?

What made us sour on him? It had something to do with his determination to stay in the public eye after the Olympics had ended. He talked about wanting to release a fashion line and attended a few Fashion Week shows, but his career as a style mogul stops at having appeared in a Ralph Lauren ad (though this quote, about his ambitions in the children’s fashion space, is edifying: “I always see babies and the clothes that they wear and it’s horrendous. … It’s gonna be something that they see, they’re like, ‘Damn. My son would look cute in that! He’s gonna be a straight-up pimp!’ “).

Here’s how Lochte really lost us: that dang reality show. What Would Ryan Lochte Do? aired on E! and was canceled quickly, but the fallout remains. Kardashians and other reality stars are criticized all the time for having no talent. Lochte had a talent, swimming, and we’d seen him do it, but he failed the American public in an even worse way: He produced boring content. On the show, he mostly hung out with his family and partied with his boys. There isn’t too much in the way of clips available on YouTube, but if this one of him decorating cupcakes with his family is any indication (“When the Lochtes get together, it’s chaos,” he promises, as footage of him starting a fairly tame food fight with frosting plays), there was very little there there. “I tell you what, if I had kids, they’s be a lot better dressed than this,” he says to his family in the clip. What is it with this guy and trash-talking kids’ clothes in completely nonspecific ways?

For all the vapidity and fakeness of most reality television, at least these shows bring the drama. How dare this guy we’re obsessed with for two weeks every four years dare try to extend his fame beyond the pool, right? But mostly, how dare he make for such a banal reality-TV subject.

Maybe it’s that we only have enough room in our hearts for one swim heartthrob at a time. Just like our national infatuation with Gabby Douglas seemed to swiftly switch over to Simone Biles, Phelps’ redemption story seemed far more compelling than Lochte’s I’m-still-here-I-guess narrative at the Rio Olympics. Everyone’s disposable, and if you haven’t won more golds than any Olympian, like Phelps has, then what have you done for me lately? Then there was the new ‘do he debuted in Rio: The appearance of his platinum dye job atop his dome mimicked the light bulb going off above all ours: Oh, this idiot.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.