With 12 Olympic medals, including six golds, Ryan Lochte has built a career as one of the most successful Olympians of all time.
Lochte has also had the problem of being in the shadow of 23-time gold medallist Michael Phelps for all of his professional career. The fact that he dyed his hair blonde for the Rio 2016 Olympics may suggest that, at the age of 32, this was his final attempt to step out of Phelps’ shadow and gain some public recognition.
The New York swimmer became the latest public figure guilty of poor decision making in Rio. Lochte had told his mother he was robbed at gunpoint after a night out, and she went on to tell this to reporters on her way to the Olympic village, according to SI.com.
That led to the story being run on FOX Sports Australia, where Lochte claimed in an interview that he and his team mates were robbed at the side of the road. After CCTV evidence showed various inconsistencies, it became clear that Lochte wasn’t telling the truth and he admitted that he had exaggerated the story.
There had in fact been no robbery. Instead, Lochte and his three teammates had caused $50 worth of damages at a petrol station and a security guard had used a gun to get the drunken group under control.
This prompted the worldwide #LochMess trend on social media, where users mimicked and mocked Lochte and his decision-making both in Rio and throughout his professional career.
Initially, Lochte released a statement confirming the robbery, though he has now gone back on that statement and admitted that he lied. He told Billy Bush in an NBC interview: “I don’t know why. You know, it was still hours after the incident happened. I was still intoxicated. I was still under that influence.
“If I hadn’t exaggerated the story or told the entire story none of this would have happened. I was coming from the France house [the nightclub he visited with his team mates that night], I was highly intoxicated and I made immature accusations. If I had not done that, none of this would have happened.”
Lochte has earned millions of dollars through sponsorships with brands such as Gillette, Nissan and Gatorade amongst others. He became a champion of his sport, as well as a credible and reputable personality.
Marketing technology company Amobee analysed the mentions of Lochte and his sponsors online, finding that 37% of mentions of mattress company Airweave were negative, while Speedo was 35% negative and Ralph Lauren 31% following #LochMess.
Now, all four of Lochte’s major sponsors have dropped the athlete. Speedo said: “We cannot condone behaviour that is counter to the values this brand has long stood for.” The company has donated $50,000 of his fee to the charity Save The Children‘s Brazilian operation.
Having lost lucrative sponsorship deals, Lochte has now changed his hairstyle back to his natural brown colour. He has already looked uncomfortable during his interview with NBC’s Billy Bush. He has also issued a formal apology statement and hired a PR crisis expert. Now, he must allow the dust to settle and attempt to recover his reputation.
The Olympic swimmer has taken steps to protect his online image and has utilised the new Instagram feature which allows well-known users to remove some, or all, or the comments on their photographs. He also shut down his public Facebook page following persistent trolling, ridicule and negative comments flooding the page.
Unfortunately for Lochte, his best chance at redemption would have been to battle back and win gold in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympics. However, at the age of 32, he is now in the twilight of his career and it appears that he will bow out in embarrassment rather than a sporting hero – a legacy which will of course follow his rival Phelps for years to come.
Learning from Lochte
Particularly when emotions are high, before responding to a reporter, on social media, or to anyone at all, take a moment to stop and think. This case shows the value of being transparent in every situation, whether the matter seems trivial or not.
A damaged brand can nearly always be recovered, but only with a conscious and sincere effort over an extended period of time. History will be the judge of whether than happens for Lochte and maybe in a few years with a focused effort, Lochte could become a role model for others in the public eye to be truthful at all times. This case should compel others to stay accountable for decisions, and upon making a mistake, to make immediate and truthful amends.