Analyzing the Ryan Lochte Olympic Robbery Controversy
Griffin Kauvar, Rylee Thomas, Chad Crabtree and Adam Reichenbach
When the news first reached the public’s ears of Ryan Lochte’s supposed robbery in Rio there was nothing but shock and sympathy for the Olympian. In the coming days, as conflicting information began to surface, an interesting controversy quickly started to emerge. Support for the athlete soon turned to speculation, and when the truth was finally surfaced, support for the athlete turned to disappointment, embarrassment, and outrage. This paper will evaluate the Ryan Lochte robbery controversy through an analysis of news sources from a variety of media outlets. Furthermore, an examination of the various reactions to the controversy, both from a U.S perspective as well as global perspective, will be included. Finally, a discussion of the global dialogue that spurred from this controversy will be covered and analyzed.
A few days into the Rio games, Ryan Lochte and some other US swimmers filed a police report that they were held at gunpoint and robbed of all their valuables. This was the biggest moment in the Olympics and it wasn’t even in the pool or on the track. Amidst the controversy and attraction of the breaking story, the police were quick to find out that the swimmers had lied about the entire situation. Video surveillance revealed that the swimmers were drunk and vandalized a gas station bathroom. They knew they were going to face legal repercussions as well as punishment from Olympic authorities, so they decided to blame a country that was weak in the eyes of others. In doing so, they took advantage of a country that was already facing many problems and as such the news outlets around the world did not look to kindly upon Lochte, the other swimmers, or the image of the United States they reflected.
US Reaction – Adam Reichenbach
Most of the coverage for the Rio Olympics was done by NBC and was one of the first media outlets to report the initial story that Lochte was robbed. As more of the swimmers stories were debunked, NBC took some fire for the initial coverage of the story. The New York Times said in a 2016 article, “Ryan Lochte’s Evolving Story Faced Little Resistance From NBC”, that Billy Bush of the Today Show interviewed Lochte hours after the incident and didn’t really ask further details, thus the story was accepted that Lochte had been a victim of a Rio de Janeiro street crime. Lack of questioning into the details of Lochte’s story left out valuable information that spun the story into making the Olympic host city look bad. NBC was quick to jump on the story before some very important details, such as the surveillance footage at the gas station, surfaced and told a different story of these swimmers.
The incident, that occurred during the 2016 Rio Olympics, placed the global spotlight on Lochte, the U.S. swim team, the USOC, and the whole US country. “#Lochtegate”, or occasionally “#Lochmess” drew attention from both international as well as US media outlets alike and social media did nothing but fuel the global conversation. Lochte’s story became one of the more dominating headlines from American media outlets throughout the Olympics and its coverage largely swamped the accomplishments of other US athletes, such as Michael Phelps.
Ryan Lochte was suspended for 10 months by the U.S. Olympic committee and a 2016 USA Today sports article “The Ryan Lochte Ban sends a strong message (and is completely ridiculous)” said that, “He hugely embarrassed U.S. Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee yes, but by extension, he embarrassed the United States.” What was embarrassing was that he fabricated his story or “over exaggerated” it in his exclusive 2016 NBC News interview with Matt Lauer. Not only that, but when his initial story was released, he also embarrassed the host city Rio, as well as the country he represented. Naturally, when the true story was exposed and the false one disproved by the Rio police and other investigators, global embarrassment and ridicule for the athlete ensued.
As the games continued, countless articles were published throughout the days following the initial report of the Ryan Lochte robbery. As such reports continued to flood the media outlets around the world an interesting and contentious story began to take shape. Despite initial adamancy from Ryan Lochte on the truthfulness of his robbery claim, it was later revealed that the athlete had drunkenly vandalized the restroom. To avoid reparation and embarrassment for his actions, he fabricated the false robbery story to deflect attention, and even avoid detection, of his own wrongdoings. In the process, Ryan Lochte shifted from an innocent and esteemed athlete to a national embarrassment who dishonored himself, the United States, and Brazil. His actions were exploitative and unjust and gave the United States and the USOC a bad name on the world’s biggest stage: the Olympics.
An analysis of various articles from an array of news outlets all paint a similar picture of Ryan Lochte, though their perspectives taken on their coverage of the issue exhibit some distinctions as well. The most apparent differences can be seen even before reading the article if one just looks at the titles of various articles. Some are very objective such as is described in 2016 by Diamond in Rolling Stone’s article “Ryan Lochte Charged for False Rio Robbery Story.” This article in general was very impartial and presented the facts of the case succinctly without injecting a ton of bias.
Other articles weren’t as forgiving, such as in 2016 by Ansari and Almasy in CNN’s “Ryan Lochte: ‘I over-exaggerated’ Olympics robbery story” and in 2016 by Kindelan in ABC News’s “Ryan Lochte Made a ‘Very Big Mistake’ in Rio Robbery Claim, Moving Forward on ‘Dancing with the Stars’.” Both these articles featured embedded videos of interviews with Lochte post the truth coming out. The videos were telling as much as they were critical. They depicted a defeated and embarrassed Lochte that was caught in the middle of an unforgiving scrutiny and analysis by the world stage and media. The articles themselves contained a variety of quotes from Lochte that added contextual, who, what, where, when elements to the story, but also, and maybe more importantly, depicted the why of the controversy both in terms of why he fabricated the story in the first place and why he is disappointed in himself and his actions looking back on his decision in retrospect. ABC also specifically covered the controversy from “what’s next after dust settles” angle in also discussing Ryan Lochte’s Dancing with the Stars plans.
Interestingly too, after his first dance routine during Dancing with the Stars, two angry Brazilians, wearing shirts that insulted Lochte and called attention to his actions during his time in Brazil, tried to run onto the dance floor. They were later interviewed, where they voice how mad they were that Lochte was seemingly allowed to walk away for lying and making their beloved country of Brazil look depraved. Following the incident, Twitter went off with one particular tweet saying, “Oh no, Ryan Lochte just got robbed again on Dancing with the Stars”. His name will be forever tarnished and he will be made fun of for the rest of his life.
Finally, in 2016 by Chan in TIME’s article “How Ryan Lochte’s Rio Robbery Story Fell Apart”, utilized an interesting way of telling the story. This article breaks the controversy into two parts, the buildup and the teardown. These two parts could also be understood as the before, namely before the truth was revealed and Ryan Lochte was simply a victim, and the after, the collapse of the lies and exposure of the embarrassing and wearisome truth. This article was one of the few evaluated that seem to describe the before and after of the controversy in relatively equal time. In comparison, to other articles that tended to focus more on the aftermath as it could be assumed that the scandalous aspect of the story was more appealing to audiences and therefore more likely to be covered to try and gain as many eyes for the article as possible.
In short, in the aftermath of everything Lochte was suspended from competitive swimming for 20 months. He was ridiculed on the global stage and in the process he forfeited four major endorsement deals. Citizens from Brazil were especially angry because they hated the fact that a talented American athlete exploited and blamed their country when he was the one at fault.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this incident was that Ryan Lochte’s indiscretions not only reflected poorly on himself and his career, but reinforced the stereotype of the “Ugly American abroad.” The New York Post describes this as a sense of entitlement and superiority expressed however subtly and in whatever international context. In his article titled “Ryan Lochte is everything the world hates about Americans”, author Mike Vaccaro explains that the act itself would have barely affected his reputation at all. Instead, his arrogance and self-righteousness as an American abroad caused him to rewrite the story with himself as the victim of an act of violence. As the Olympic authorities set up tall white boards for watchers to write their memories from the Summer Games, Americans issued apologies, writing “Sorry for Ryan Lochte.”
Though Americans were ashamed of the Lochte scandal, many made excuses for his behavior as “kids just having fun, and making mistakes.” BBC News pulls criticism of these excuses from Twitter; several commented on the severe backlash Gabby Douglas received for not placing her hand over her heart during the national anthem in comparison to the public reaction Lochte experienced. Americans criticized this world renowned gymnast for her hand placement while another one of America’s athletes had disrespected another nation’s authorities and embarrassed us internationally. There are a few key differences between these incidences that international spectators picked up on; the first being racial and gender differences, with the white male being treated more leniently than the black female. However, the most pertinent difference between the two is the reason for which they are being criticized. Gabby Douglas was subjected to severe public scrutiny for “disrespecting” her own country while in the international spotlight, while Lochte received (not nearly as harsh) backlash for disrespecting another country in the global arena. This difference shows how Americans think and behave, and how the global discussion of the Lochte controversy really exposed American entitlement and self-obsession to not only the rest of the world, but ourselves.
The Olympic Summer Games are unique in that they are the pinnacle of global attention; each country pays attention to the behavior of athletes from other countries, and how that behavior is representative of that nation. For instance, some Americans may watch China’s gymnastics team and speculate, “How old are they? Are they 11? Are they being forced to do this?” Americans may think this way because of harmful stereotypes we form, and it bleeds into our global opinion and expectations of behavior. In the international spotlight, Ryan Lochte proved to the rest of the world that American arrogance is as real as they thought. His disregard for local authorities by lying about their behavior showed a sense of entitlement that the rest of the world had picked up on, and until his lies were exposed, Americans remained oblivious. After what had been called “LochteGate,” Americans felt an unfamiliar sense of embarrassment for Lochte’s behavior in the global public sphere.
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