Five-ring Circus

Should We Feel Bad for Ryan Lochte?

An Olympics debate.

Ryan Lochte
A traumatized jerk, or just a jerk?

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photoss by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images, David Ramos/Getty Images, and Clive Rose/Getty Images.

Resolved: We should feel bad for Ryan Lochte.

Arguing the affirmative is Susan Matthews. Arguing the negative is Christina Cauterucci.

Affirmative: Ryan Lochte is not a sympathetic character. He’s a privileged white dude who has made millions off of being an attractive swimmer. That alone means it’s hard to feel bad for him. We didn’t even really feel bad for Lochte when we learned he and his fellow swimmers were robbed at gunpoint. That would happen to Ryan Lochte, famed Olympic oaf, we thought. But, hey, he was fine. And then we realized he wasn’t actually mugged but in fact had been drunk and vandalized a gas station and was held accountable for his misguided actions by security guards at said gas station. And then he had the gall to go on television and lie about what had happened. What a jerk!

All that said, I do feel bad for Ryan Lochte. Because I think that Ryan Lochte actually does believe that something bad happened to him, and I don’t think he realized he was lying. Also, it is possible for someone to be a jerk and for said jerk to experience something traumatic. Lochte did not make up an elaborate lie and sell it to the press in an evil plan to paint Rio de Janeiro as a dangerous city. He told his mom that something scary happened to him, which is what he believed. He exaggerated parts of the story, it seems, but mostly he just interpreted something that happened to him incorrectly.

What did Ryan Lochte lie about, exactly? “The guy pulled out his gun,” he told Billy Bush in his first interview about the incident, “he cocked it, put it my forehead, and said ‘get down.’ ” The part about the guy putting a gun to his forehead was a cinematic exaggeration that he copped to in a later interview, with Matt Lauer. His cab had not been pulled over, as he admitted to Lauer, and he left out that the incident had been provoked by the fact that he and his teammates had damaged private property. But on the central question of what happened early Sunday morning in Rio, Lochte told something very close to the truth. An armed person purporting to be acting in an official capacity waved around a gun and demanded money. Lochte thought he was being mugged. The armed person thought he was doing what he needed to do to get payment for the swimmers’ bad behavior.

“It is traumatic to be out late with your friend in a foreign country—with a language barrier—and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave,” Lochte said in a quasi-apologetic statement he almost certainly did not write himself. This is a poorly constructed sentence, because it makes it incredibly easy to mock Lochte for saying partying with his friends had been “traumatic.” But it is traumatic to have a stranger point a gun at you and ask you for money in a language you can’t understand. That’s the case even if Lochte did something dumb and destructive, and even if he deserved to be fined for it.

Particularly egregious is the notion that we can use the gas station surveillance footage that shows him joking with his friends to argue Lochte wasn’t actually upset. People respond differently to trauma, and trauma often manifests in ways that don’t match our expectations. It’s bad form to accuse Lochte of being a faker because he doesn’t look like what we think a traumatized person should look like. People should not be expected to perform their trauma.

Negative: I can’t believe we’re actually having a debate about this. No, we should not feel bad for Ryan Lochte. This is a 32-year-old multimillionaire superstar who allegedly damaged private property in a foreign country, tried to get away without being held accountable for it, then lied to the world for days in an effort to shift the blame from himself to residents of a country battling a reputation for poverty and crime. In a widely publicized NBC interview days after the fact, he feigned incredulity that anyone could possibly think he wasn’t telling the whole truth, then sat smugly by while everyone from the Rio 2016 spokesman to his own father defended him. Every turn of this story supports the conclusion that Lochte doesn’t have the decency to admit to any damage he causes. Instead, he’ll take exactly as much leeway as his privilege affords him, even when those without his fame, money, and U.S. passport suffer for it.

In his apology, Lochte claims it was “traumatic” for him to be out late in a foreign country with someone pointing a gun at him and demanding money. He claims that he wasn’t “careful and candid” enough in his description of what happened Sunday night. This is patently false. Lochte’s account wasn’t too hasty or too stilted—it was untrue. He said he was robbed; he wasn’t. His accounts of the night shifted as he spoke to the Brazilian police and the media, and it’s clear that much of what he said in various accounts was false. But most importantly, the very premise of his story was a lie. He and/or his friends destroyed property at a gas station. Employees demanded remuneration. This is exactly what happens in malls and fancy boutiques all across the U.S.: You break it, you buy it. Security guards in the U.S. have guns, too, and they sure as hell use them (on black people, at least) when would-be criminals try to get away. Language barrier or not, if my American friends and I had just kicked down the door of a Brazilian gas station and damaged a mirror, I would understand why employees were yelling at me. I would know it was not a robbery but a warranted demand that I pay for the stuff I broke.

As for Lochte’s alleged traumatization, if he and his buddies hadn’t tried to get away without paying for the damage they caused—or if they, you know, hadn’t destroyed property in the first place and allegedly peed on the gas station and physically fought gas station employees—the situation would not have escalated. If you’re scared of being out late in a foreign country, don’t stay out late in a foreign country. If you’re nervous a language barrier might impede your ability to communicate with someone accusing you of destroying property, don’t destroy property in a place where you don’t speak the language.

If Lochte had lied about some stupid, destructive thing he did during an Olympic stint in London or Vancouver or L.A., I might be more inclined to let it go without writing a point-counterpoint about it, if not afford him any outright pity. But this was Rio de Janeiro. The narrative leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games has focused in large part on Brazil’s efforts to get its act together, along with criticisms of the corruption of its government, its treatment of people living in poverty, and its response to Zika. It’s actively fighting a reputation for widespread violent crime. Lochte perpetuated a narrative of Rio as a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden, justice hellhole to cover his own sorry, entitled ass. So no, we should not feel bad for him.

Affirmative: It is unfortunate that this happened and that it has received such outsized media attention. But that’s not Lochte’s fault—he didn’t even try to bring this case to the police or the media himself (it was his mother who retold her son’s story to the press, prompting the police investigation and the spiral of media attention). Lochte misinterpreted something that happened to him, and then got caught. This is why any reporting on crime should be skeptical until the incident has been fully assessed. Now it has, and the record has been corrected. As a result, I learned that Brazilian law allows people to make donations to avoid criminal prosecution for minor offenses. (Hey, maybe there’s something to corrupt Brazilian governance.) I don’t think we need to set up a collection box for Lochte. But he made an honest mistake, and one that was pretty quickly corrected.

This Olympics has not been kind to him. He has the distinction of being famous for being “dumb.” This incident certainly doesn’t help matters (and he is definitely bad at interviews). But honestly, all of the time spent decrying Lochte’s lack of intelligence is a bit embarrassing. Not everyone is smart, just as not everyone can swim 200 meters in less than 2 minutes. I am not as good at anything as Ryan Lochte is at swimming, and his commitment to his sport requires a certain type of mental stamina that is worth appreciating, even if it is not the mental fortitude we’re used to recognizing.

Of course, the fact Lochte is a good swimmer doesn’t mean he should be excused from any sort of bad behavior. He probably deserves to lose his various endorsement deals, though I would argue that’s more because of his drunken misbehavior than his misinterpretation of the “mugging.” But for the last week, Lochte has been treated as either the village idiot or a symbol of white privilege who explains everything that is wrong with our society. His crimes don’t warrant either (and the first is quite frankly a bit offensive).

Negative: I agree that talk of his stupidity has been overblown, though I do think his general sense of oblivion is one reason why no one is saying Lochte is the mastermind of an evil plan. (I doubt he has the capacity to be the mastermind of so much as a trip to the grocery store.) But his decision to leave out a really important part of the story of his so-called mugging—the fact that it occurred immediately following an act of significant vandalism and alleged mass urination—in his statements to police, Olympic officials, his family, and NBC betrays the fact that he was actively trying to cover for himself. He didn’t have to give a woe-is-me interview on NBC. He didn’t have to embellish his made-up version of the story with claims he had a gun to his forehead. He could have kept quiet about the whole thing and dealt with it on his own instead of blabbing to his mom, then the world, and blaming Rio’s crime rate for the fallout of his own aggro show of entitlement.

He did not believe he was mugged. He could not have believed he was mugged! To believe a group of guys could trash a gas station bathroom and then completely coincidentally be mugged by angry gas station employees and security guards—who, I imagine, were probably physically indicating the damage done to get past the alleged language barrier—would require a level of stupidity Ryan Lochte couldn’t hope to muster.

To make matters even worse, for all the talk of his oafishness, Lochte should have known better. He’s older than all the other swimmers involved in the incident, more than a decade older than two of them. As one of the two stars of the U.S. team, he should have been setting an example for them. Instead, the Rio police chief noted, Lochte posed a particular “very angry” threat to the gas station attendants when they confronted him. Then, Lochte conveniently left the country while his teammates took the heat. This is not the behavior of a man who mistakes the logical consequences of an act of vandalism for a senseless mugging.

Affirmative: There’s no doubt Lochte’s behavior at the gas station was immature and embarrassing for the U.S. That still doesn’t mean he deserves what happened to him next, which again, sounds like a jarring experience that anyone would come away from shaken and upset. It is possible for bad things to happen to jerks. Ryan Lochte is a jerk, and a bad thing happened to him. As his spokesperson said, we’ve spent enough time on this. I’m looking forward to not thinking about Ryan Lochte for at least four years, if ever again.

Negative: I think I’ve made my case for why Ryan Lochte did wrong by willfully obscuring the events that led to security guards relieving him and his friends of a whopping $50. But to get back to the original question, there’s one more reason why we shouldn’t feel bad for him: He doesn’t need our pity. He’s a rich white guy home safe in America with his Olympic medals and endorsement deals. Who should we feel bad for instead? The gas station employees, who had to deal with a bunch of drunk American jerks breaking things, peeing on their place of employment, then getting aggressive when held to account. Lochte’s mom, who set this whole thing off when she repeated Lochte’s story of being robbed to the press and probably feels like a schmuck now. The other Olympic athletes, whose events and accomplishments have been overshadowed by Lochte’s nonsense. The people of Rio, whose city was defamed by a little shit from the States who’s used to getting a free ride through life. And, most importantly, the victims of actual Rio-based crimes for whom justice has no doubt been delayed or diverted by a police force embroiled in Lochte’s lie.

Read more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.