Ryan Lochte is free to focus on Dancing With the Stars for as long as the voting public will have him.
USA Swimming and the United States Olympic Committee have jointly washed their hands of the tarnished gold medalist for now, the organizations suspending Lochte for 10 months as punishment for the bogus story he told authorities and the media about being robbed at gunpoint during the Rio Olympics last month. Moreover, he's banned from the 2017 National Championship, which subsequently prevents him from qualifying for the FINA World Championships next July in Budapest.
Lochte will still be allowed to practice on his own, but not at any USOC-affiliated training center and without the financial backing of USA Swimming, which provides entry fees and other resources for its team members. He'll also forfeit his $100,000 in bonuses from USOC and USA Swimming for the gold he won in Rio, he doesn't get to join Team USA on its Olympics-related visit to the White House, he's banned from the swim team's "Golden Goggles" event and he must perform 20 hours of community service.
The teammates caught up in the mess with Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and James Feigen, have each received a four-month suspension and similar bans from facilities and events, plus Bentz must perform 10 hours of community service because, being under 21, he violated the Olympic Village curfew on the night in question.
AP Photo, Getty Images
If Lochte's 10-month suspension from competition sounds to you like a minor slap on the wrist after the havoc he wrought, then you're not alone. At first glance it seems as though he's getting off easy, particularly when viewed in light of all the dramatic headlines generated by Lochte's inexplicable decision-making process.
Not to mention, despite initial cries from the masses that he should just go away for awhile, he's currently busy rehearsing for DWTS, which pays contestants handsomel. He's also already scored a couple of new product deals after losing all of his endorsements in one fell swoop at the height of the controversy a few weeks ago.
But rest assured, Lochte remains in a prison of his own design. Let's put his suspension into perspective.
First of all, suspensions are generally handed out in response to some sort of boneheaded behavior, be it doping, a DUI or, in Lochte's case, a very ill-conceived "over-exaggeration" that was an example of behavior unbecoming an athlete representing the United States.
Doping (or testing positive for banned substances) usually results in the harshest penalties from the various governing bodies that oversee national and international competition: Justin Gatlin, runner-up to Usain Bolt in the 100 meters in Rio, accepted an eight-year ban doping ban from international competition in 2006, but ultimately had it reduced on appeal to four years. Tyson Gay, a member of the 4 x 100 meter relay team in Rio, was banned for a year after testing positive for an anabolic steroid in 2013 and his entire relay team from the 2012 London Olympics lost their silver medal.
Three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 title and banned from cycling for a year after testing positive for a steroid. American cyclist Tyler Hamilton effectively retired while under investigation for doping in 2009, right before he was slapped with an eight-year ban from competition. After qualifying for the Beijing Olympics, U.S. swimmer Jessica Hardy failed a drug test, withdrew from Beijing and ultimately served a one-year suspension.
Then there are punishments for unsportsmanlike behavior. Hope Solowas suspended for six months by U.S. Soccer after the Olympics for calling the Swedish players "cowards," aka making unsporting remarks. (Her contract was then terminated, but that was due to a build-up of "off-the-field distractions," per U.S. coach Jill Ellis.)
But why is Lochte's suspension longer than the one that, say, Michael Phelps got in 2014 following his DUI bust? Wasn't Phelps' wrongdoing potentially more devastating than Lochte's, no matter how embarrassing the latter swimmer's behavior was?
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Phelps was arrested in late September 2014 and, a week later, he vowed to enter a six-week treatment program, which he did. On Oct. 6, 2014, a day after Phelps announced his intent to enter rehab, USA Swimming suspended him for six months for violating its code of conduct.
Phelps, who was coming back from his initial retirement in 2012, was declared ineligible to compete until April 6, 2015. Like Lochte, he was unable to compete in the next major event, in his case the 2015 World Aquatics Championships in Russia, a major tune-up for Rio (which ultimately didn't seem to matter that much in the long run, preparedness-wise).
"Membership in USA Swimming, and particularly at the National Team level, includes a clear obligation to adhere to our Code of Conduct," USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus said in a statement regarding Phelps in 2014. "Should an infraction occur, it is our responsibility to take appropriate action based on the individual case. Michael's conduct was serious and required significant consequences. Michael has publicly acknowledged the impact of his decisions, his accountability especially due to his stature in the sport and the steps necessary for self-improvement. We endorse and are here to fully support his personal development actions."
Phelps had previously been suspended by USA Swimming for three months in 2009 after a photo of him holding a bong at a party surfaced online, and he had a previous DUI, from 2004, when he was 19.
So once again, why is Lochte kicked out of competition for a longer period?
Wielgus said about Lochte and his fellow swimmers this morning: "During an otherwise extraordinary Olympic Games, a small group of athletes had lapses in judgement and conduct that are unacceptable and not consistent with our expectations. When Code of Conduct infractions occur, it's our responsibility to take action that reflects the seriousness of what happened. Unfortunately, this storyline took attention away from the athletes who deserved it the most. These athletes took accountability for their mistakes and are committed to represent themselves and our country with the great character and distinction we expect."
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In addition to Phelps seemingly getting the benefit of the doubt, despite being a repeat offender, for proactively seeking help and admitting to screwing up straightaway, perhaps Lochte was dinged for dragging his feet when it came to admitting he had done anything wrong—because even when he opened up about what happened, he hemmed and hawed regarding the gravity of the situation.
"These kind of shenanigans, or whatever you want to call them, will never happen again and I love this sport," Lochte told NBC News' Matt Lauerabout six days after the incident and several days after Rio authorities officially deemed the swimmer's story a fabrication.
Most people were inclined to call it a lie, one told to cover up boorish misbehavior in the middle of the Olympic Games. Brazil was playing host to Team USA and athletes from 205 other countries, and Lochte didn't just thumb his nose at the notion of being a gracious guest, he made up a phantom armed robber from a troubled nation and figured no one would be the wiser.
So as people wonder why Lochte is facing a stiffer penalty for lying than Phelps got for drunk driving, USA Swimming and USOC eventually agreed (TMZ, which first reported the suspension, said that some involved in the discussions thought the penalty was too severe) that Lochte's conduct was boneheaded enough—and humiliating enough for Team USA as a whole—to warrant the hefty punishment.
And it is a hefty punishment, even if 10 months doesn't seem like that much time in the grand scheme of things.
AP Photo/Michael Sohn
If a Major League Baseball player is suspended for 50 games for failing a drug test, that's only a third of a season; and even if he's out a whole season (as Alex Rodriguez was in 2014), there's another season coming about five months later. Swimming, however, is a different beast, and the next world championships won't come along for Lochte until 2019.
Lochte, who's 32 now, will be about 35 then. In Rio, Anthony Ervin became at 35 the oldest member of the USA men's swim team to ever win individual Olympic gold, so it's not like you can't be an elite swimmer at that age. But the incoming competition will only be getting faster and there will only be more younger competitors going up against the veterans by then.
The suspension of course doesn't mess with the facts of life, and Lochte's long-term plan may seem intact. He would have been 36 anyway by the time the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo roll around; and despite being past his competitive peak, having won one gold medal in Rio as part of the 4 x 200 freestyle relay team, the athlete told Lauer he had his eye on 2020. Moreover, after a disappointing swim in the 200 IM but before this whole mess, Lochte said he was taking some time off.
But not having a world championship to swim for until 2019 may make it a little harder to jump in that pool every day and go back and forth, back and forth. Instead, USA Swimming may have just sent Lochte forth into his future, and there may not be a chance to turn it around and head back.