Chasing Fame: Ryan Lochte’s Obsession with Attention

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“The blond hair, really?” I was sitting with the girls of a family friend, keeping them company while their parents were at work.

“He’s just so cute,” the eldest of the two sighed deeply and dramatically.

“But why him?” I continued, taken aback by her answer, since in my opinion, there were so many other dreamy guys on the swim team to fantasize about.

“Oh, he’s so funny and he doesn’t life too seriously,” the middle-schooler responded, gazing off into the distance. Well, the latter I had to agree with. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe Lochte took one aspect of life too seriously. Maybe he was obsessed with something that he couldn’t attain, and that was his problem. He wanted attention. I could go so far as to say that maybe he linked garnering attention with finding happiness, but then I’d be projecting, and that would be too cliché.

Or would it?

I recently read this article on Ryan Lochte that I thought was beautifully written. Because while so many reporters bashed Lochte for his actions in Rio, my personal favourite being Sally Jenkins in The Washington Post who wrote that “Ryan Lochte is the dumbest bell that ever sang,” Joe Posnanski from NBC took a different approach.

“Fame is powerful narcotic,” he writes. “It has driven generals and movie stars, writers and doctors, philosophers and humanitarians and groundbreakers and reality TV show stars to do extraordinary things and ludicrous things, righteous things and terrible things, to change the world and to become clowns.”  Just as hubris drove Oedipus Rex to his doom, the desire for fame drove Ryan Lochte to lie his way through a “whatever-it-was” robbery in Rio.

There are people that have done absolutely idiotic things to achieve notoriety. We shake our heads in disbelief, disgust, or humor. We never believe that we could be capable of doing the same. Our fascination with people going to great lengths for attention is not unwarranted. (Hey, I like The Bachelorette just as much as the show’s proclaimed other one million viewers out there.) But, attention is something that we all seek on some level, large-scale or not. The number of likes on Instagram, the retweets, the friends on Facebook – these are all ways of achieving fame to a certain degree. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t experience it too: the desire for attention, validation, or fame…

The Olympics are a time when athletes come together to test strength, skill, and ability. It’s also a time when they can be tested for their grace under pressure and in the spotlight. We put these athletes on a pedestal; after all, they complete nearly impossible feats, sometimes seemingly with ease. (I’m looking at you, Usain Bolt. And you, Michael Phelps. And the entire U.S. Women’s gymnastics team. Not to mention, countless others that competed in the games this year). But, we forget that these athletes are human too.

Posnanski gives to Ryan Lochte something that none of the other reporters, and certainly not the media, gave to him: the chance to be human, and humanly flawed. He doesn’t use this to excuse Lochte’s actions or to elicit the reader’s sympathy, but Posnanski did make me consider that the potential motive behind Lochte’s decisions all could lead to simply his desire to be noticed.

If the media’s aim was to distort, to embellish, and to make Lochte seem less human and more famed by his actions… then they succeeded. And whether or not this is what Lochte intended (I have to believe that he does not want to be remembered as “that US swimmer that lied about a robbery”), he did achieve his purpose: he captured the nation’s attention, if only by notoriety, and if only for a brief stint in time.

For a full weekend, Lochte’s foolish actions overshadowed other Olympic news. If attention is what he wanted, attention is what he got.  But if all of this chasing fame was just a ploy in his mind in hopes to attain something greater, purpose, excitement, happiness even, Lochte will have to look elsewhere to find those things. Until he does, this episode of chasing fame won’t taste anywhere near as sweet as that gold medal after the 4×200 relay when his Olympics ended. But then again, why stop there when you think you need so much more.