The ballad of "Swim Shady": Ryan Lochte's Rio fiasco is more proof that male athletes are a protected class

The Olympic swimmer's fake-robbery debacle is being brushed off, while gymnast Gabby Douglas is the target of abuse

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 19, 2016 3:33PM (EDT)

Ryan Lochte   (AP/Martin Meissner)
Ryan Lochte (AP/Martin Meissner)

It must be a heady thing to have all the privileges of a male athlete. You can pretty much do anything before you're held even remotely accountable — and then when you do have to face any consequences, you'll get a nice chorus of despair about your lost opportunities. In what other realm could the misdeeds of a 32-year-old man be gently passed off as the antics of "kids?"

Oh, to be you, Ryan Lochte.

Early this week, reports emerged that the blue-haired Olympic medalist — along with three other members of the U.S. swim team — had been "robbed at gunpoint" early Sunday morning. USOC spokesperson Patrick Sandusky issued a statement saying that while heading toward the Olympic village, "their taxi was stopped by individuals posing as armed police officers who demanded the athletes’ money and other personal belongings. All four athletes are safe and cooperating with authorities."

Lochte himself gave an eminently Lochte-ish account of the event, telling NBC, "They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground — they got down on the ground. I refused, I was like we didn't do anything wrong, so — I'm not getting down on the ground. And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, "Get down," and I put my hands up, I was like 'whatever.' He took our money, he took my wallet — he left my cell phone, he left my credentials."

And the the tale began to change. On Thursday, Brazilian police said that "It seems that they lied. No robbery was committed against these athletes. They were not victims of the crimes they claimed." Instead, it appeared the swimmers had vandalized a gas station — USA Today reports "one of them broke down the bathroom door and police found damage to a soap dispenser and a mirror" — leading to a confrontation with armed security guards and a payoff, possibly to cover the damages. The AP reports that "police said the swimmers were unable to provide key details in early interviews, saying they had been intoxicated."

The response to these hijinks has been generous, to say the least. Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada shrugged Thursday, "Let's give these kids a break. Sometimes you take actions that you later regret. They are magnificent athletes. Lochte is one of the best swimmers of all times. They had fun. They made a mistake. It's part of life. Life goes on. Let's go."

I guess if you're "one of the best swimmers of all times," you can do whatever the heck you want! P.S. This "kid" is 32.

A Time story on the incident, meanwhile, observes that though he may now suffer fallout, "Ryan Lochte Has Never Played by the Rules."

In a Friday morning statement, Lochte still seems to stick close to his original narrative:

"It's traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country, with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave," but adds that he apologizes for "not being more careful and candid in how I described the events."

Two days ago, Lochte was retweeting fans who say, "I am from Brazil and I believe Ryan. I was robbed in the bus. Drivers are working with robbers." Fernando Veloso, chief of Rio’s civil police, said Thursday that when the swimmers were having belligerently, a security officer showed them his weapon but that "there was no way" they could have mistaken the incident for a robbery.

Tragically, as several news outlets have noted, Lochte stands to lose some plum endorsements from all of this. But compare his experience during these games — the jokey, lighthearted way his hashtaggable actions have been treated — with that of gymnast Gabby Douglas, whose unforgivable crime in Rio was not putting her hand over her heart during the playing of our national anthem. For that, she's been the target of vitriolic online abuse. "She's had to deal with people criticizing her hair, or people accusing her of bleaching her skin. They said she had breast enhancements, they said she wasn't smiling enough, she's unpatriotic," her mother told reporters this week. "Then it went to not supporting your team mates. Now you're 'Crabby Gabby.' You name it and she got trampled. What did she ever do to anyone?" Well, for starters, Douglas wasn't born a goofy white guy.

If you're a "promising" Stanford swimmer, you can sexually assault a woman and have newspapers weep for your "tarnished" career. If you're an Olympic runner, you can kill your girlfriend and have a judge call you "a fallen hero." You can literally murder two people and eat a victim's face, and if you're a football player, a newspaper can call it a "fall from grace." And if you're Ryan Lochte, you can disgrace yourself and just be a "kid" who made a "mistake."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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2016 Summer Olympics Gabby Douglas Male Entitlement Rio Olympics Ryan Lochte