|Ryan Lochte swam quite well at the Olympics -- for anyone not named Ryan Lochte (or Michael Phelps). (Getty Images)|
By almost any other sporting measure, outside of something so imperiously American, or downright Phelpsian, Ryan Lochte leaves London a spectacularly accomplished Olympian. Five medals in six races, two of them gold. That's a hearty haul around one's neck; too heavy for most, even. The man won't have 10 contemporaries who exit these Olympics with that much medal. Think about going into something with more than 10,000 people and coming out of it as one of the most decorated among that group. "Impressive" doesn't do the achievement justice.
Unfortunately, that kind of math doesn't matter right now. Narratives and expectation don't dance with inter-athletic arithmetic. We can only judge Lochte against his sport, his greatest rival and himself.
Lochte gave up his final medal chance of these Games by bowing out (are you OK with this?) of the upcoming 4x100 medley relay -- the most colorful and dynamic of any Olympic race. So, with all swam and done, if you need it in one place to help hollow out your perspective, this is what Lochte's London looks like.
Gold: 400-meter individual medley (Phelps finished fourth)
Gold: 4x200 freestyle relay (swam opening leg)
Silver: 200-meter individual medley (lost to Phelps)
Silver: 4x100 freestyle relay (gave up lead on anchor leg)
Bronze: 200-meter backstroke (lost to Tyler Clary on final lap)
Failed to medal: 200-meter freestyle
It's an awkward time for the Ryan Lochte Narrative Machine. You'll notice a lack of overarching evaluation or verdict at the moment because the tally above is neither outright failure or distinguishable dominance. It is somewhere in the middle, and that makes for boring reaction and opinion. Unfortunately, that's not what everyone -- including Lochte -- cooked this up to be.
Nevertheless, right now there's not an overwhelming sense of cheer and pride for the 28-year-old. America can't really brag about him the way it has and still does about Michael Phelps, about Gabby Douglas, about the women's U.S. gymnastics team and USA Basketball. Fraud's a word I've seen used on Twitter a few times. (Hilarious, that.) Our own Gregg Doyel even equated Lochte to one of the worst faux-rappers of all-time. (Minimally, Lochte's on par with Nas: an inconsistent but undeniable, game-changing talent.)
Still, can't help but feel that in the immediate wake of the letdowns of Thursday's races, it seems like we were misled about Lochte, perhaps even by Lochte. He did not swim up to his hype. He started with that fantastic 400 IM, blowing away Phelps and the field by three seconds ... but it was mostly disappointment from there. So how should we react now, and is our collective reaction fair? Should there be blame? He came nowhere close to putting on a display that resembles Phelps in 2008, let alone rivaling or mimicking it.
And that's what this was always about for Lochte. It was about Michael as much as it was about him. It was about rivalry and revving narratives to prop up a sport that doesn't really need it, no matter what executives at television stations believe. (There are no perpetuated or nationally acknowledged rivalries in gynmnastics and the ratings remain mesospheric.) It was about creating the storyline and becoming a better swimmer than The Greatest Swimmer Ever.
To hedge on that big bet, though, Lochte often made comments that swimming doesn't define who he is. In a grand scheme as a human, that's probably true, but as far as who he is now and what he's dedicated his life to, it's not. Leading up to these Games, you couldn't look 10 minutes on the Internet without seeing a feature on Lochte's four-year traipse to new-found waters and obliterated records just waiting for him to kill them off with his bare hands, bare feet and brazen good looks. The tire-push and keg-throwing workout routines routinely made it into every report on Who Ryan Lochte's Become.
All the laps swum in London tugged at Lochte's new mask, however. It's easy to forget -- in part because that's baked into the re-branding of who he is, who he had to morph into -- that Lochte's been around for eight years now. But this Ryan Lochte is not that Ryan Lochte. In case you weren't aware, the plan is still for him to compete yet again at Rio in four years, when he'll get the grand send-off Phelps is receiving in London.
The stories, the glossy recounts of grit and gumption, they were true. Let's not forget, Lochte has been great. He set world records and won medal after medal in world-championship meets. He was not a glass or a false icon. Still, it it was all build up. World-championship accomplishments mean practically nothing compared to Olympic performance, and while the momentum heading into the Olympics can make it feel like the golds have already been inventoried, the pesky matter of actually coming through is only what makes athletes into legends.
So, for you, did he succeed? Did he win enough? Is he still not a legend? We know this: He's not Michael Phelps, not as good or better than him, and never could be. The problem with Lochte is that he was chasing a manfish watergod from the start, a species not his own. An aberration of the competition. Going at that speed blurred him from the reality of expectation.
If the story was ever or always really about Ryan Lochte, five medals and two golds would feel like validation instead of incompletion.