Consider the Olympic ideal of worldwide peace and brotherhood, of this global festival meant to foster respect for all amid the Games’ divergent cultures and languages. Now, think about American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s behavior in Rio de Janeiro, just in terms of foreign diplomacy.
His kind of statesmanship wouldn’t get a fellow into the front door of the International House of Pancakes.
Lochte was just one of 11,000 athletes at the Rio Games, virtually all of them carrying on admirably, but he managed to reinforce the notion that U.S. citizens routinely tote their superiority complex abroad. Reports of his post-competition drunken conduct were bad enough. But for him to lie about the circumstances, and paint himself as a victim, not only denigrated his Brazilian hosts but also smeared all of us Yanks all well.
Juxtapose Lochte’s demeanor to how U.S. soccer superstar Mia Hamm evaluated the last of her three Olympic experiences in 2004 in Athens. “One of the things we focused on,” she said, “was that this was a great time to show that different countries and different nationalities and creeds can come together to celebrate sport and humanity. It wasn’t about Us versus Them. It was about what we all do.”
Jamaica’s Usain Bolt demonstrated such kinship this week, moments after winning the second of his three sprint gold medals in Rio—on his way to nine in three Olympics—with the grace to pause during a live TV interview with a Spanish reporter and stand in silence while the U.S. anthem was played for the winner of the race following Bolt’s.
Compare that thoughtful gesture to the haughty existence of the U.S. basketball team, a collection of pampered millionaires housed on a luxury ocean liner to maintain their distance from the hoi polloi in Rio’s bustling athletes’ village. When asked by a French reporter about “living on a boat,” U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski gave a rambling, persnickety response, beginning with his sarcastic clarification that “we don’t live on a boat. We’re staying on a boat. I actually live in Durham, N.C., and have a swimming pool.”
Krzyzewski’s feeble explanation for the special treatment, that “we’re here to play basketball”—as if all the other basketball teams, and all the athletes in 28 sports, weren’t in Brazil with similar competitive expectations—merely echoed decades of coddling the American hoops community at international tournaments.
At the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, U.S. head coach Jack Hartman moved his team from the village to Americanized hotels, moaning that the playing conditions “are questionable and the living is less than desirable.”
Bill Wall, when he was executive director of the U.S. basketball federation, went a step further at the 1991 Pan Am Games in Havana, Cuba, chartering $10,000 flights to Miami between games to house and feed the team in a luxury Cocoanut Grove hotel.
“If it makes us spoiled and arrogant,” Wall said then, “so be it.”
Such a sense of entitlement—the assumption of exceptional care to guarantee on-the-court success—is especially strong in the U.S. basketball organization. Even before NBA players were welcomed into the Olympics in 1992, and ever since, U.S. players always have been provided the classiest accommodations, away from the athlete villages, even at the 1996 Atlanta Games. (This is one reason that, of all the Summer Olympic sports, basketball interests me the least.)
And now we see an American swimmer who can be just as tone deaf and contemptuous of non-Americans as Bill Wall was.
Too bad he hadn’t talked to Donna de Varona, three times an Olympic swimming gold medalist at two overseas Games, in Tokyo and Rome in the 1960s. De Varona once told me that “the best thing I did to prepare to compete internationally was to read the ‘Ugly American’ when I was 12 years old.’”
That 1958 political novel depicted the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. For less than $10, Lochte can get a copy on Amazon.com. Just in case, though, somebody should alert IHOP about a potential international incident if Lochte is in the vicinity.