You can find whatever you want at the Olympics.
Victories that leave you gasping, and losses that utterly bewilder. Sportsmanship that swells your pride, disqualifications of those whose cheating makes you angry, and the inevitable struggles of the host city to get things right.
You also can find Ryan Lochte.
Just as the world was enthralled at the performances and drama on display in Rio de Janeiro, along came the American swimmer and three addled teammates to hijack the good vibe. For the better part of last week, coverage of the games focused on their frat-boy behavior and the web of lies that followed.
Eventually, facts emerged, as they always do. Lochte and company, after a night of partying, vandalized a gas station in Rio. Then they concocted a story of having been robbed at gunpoint to cover that up — a cynical calculation to exploit a city struggling with rampant street crime.
And Rio has had its troubles. Athletes from New Zealand and Britain were robbed at gunpoint and two Australian coaches were robbed at knife point. Lochte’s smear understandably inflamed all of Brazil. And it ought to make all of us angry, too, at the specter of entitled athletes once again feeding the stereotype of the ugly American.
Lochte’s apology, more than five days after the incident, was a beaut. He chided himself for not being more “careful” and “candid” in describing the episode but never admitted he had lied. He never copped to the vandalism, he apologized to his sponsors before saying sorry to Rio, and he lamented that too much had been said and too many resources spent on what happened that night with no recognition that he and his cretinous compadres were solely responsible for that.
To be fair, Lochte was not the only high-profile American boor in Rio. Women’s soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo trashed Sweden as “a bunch of cowards” after that country relied on its defense to knock the favored United States out of the Olympics.
And it’s not like the United States had a monopoly on bad behavior. An Egyptian judo player refused to shake the hand of the Israeli who beat him. A French open-water swimmer was stripped of her silver medal after nudging the third-place finisher from Italy into a floating structure at the finish line. And Brazilian fans booed French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie so vociferously as he accepted his silver medal that he was reduced to tears on the podium. His sin? Battling the Brazilian who won the event.
But those were blips on the rudeness radar compared to the reverberations of the Lochte affair. And the danger is that the games become remembered for that, much like the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan is the one where members of the U.S. men’s hockey team responded to an unexpected loss to Czechoslovakia by trashing their own rooms in the athletes village.
It’s often said that the Olympics is a celebration of athletic achievement and the human spirit, but let’s face it — that spirit isn’t all nobility.
The closing ceremony in Rio takes place Sunday. It’s usually a joyous affair. The fortnight’s stirring victories will be mentioned. So will Ryan Lochte.
I’ll be thinking of the endless jaw-dropping excellence of Usain Bolt and Simone Biles. And beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh-Jennings high-fiving and thanking every worker at the venue after every match. And New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and Massachusetts’ Abbey D’Agostino, colliding and falling in the women’s 5,000-meter run, and then sacrificing their shots at Olympic glory to help each other to the finish line.
“That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin said later.
Lochte has won 12 medals, including a gold in Rio. Neither Hamblin nor D’Agostino has won a single Olympic medal.
Who will you remember?
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.