Ryan Lochte and the Dying Art of the Public Lie: Why It's Impossible to Get Away With Anything but People Keep Trying

How is it that public figures always manage to convince themselves that they can tell a big, splashy falsehood and get away with it in this day and age?

By Natalie Finn Aug 22, 2016 8:15 PMTags

There's always the scant possibility that Ryan Lochte didn't know what, exactly, was going on in the moment.

As he reiterated multiple times to Matt Lauer during his days-late attempt to right the wrong perpetrated on the Brazilian and the American people by his actions, he was "intoxicated" when he and USA Swimming teammates James Feigen, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz stopped in to use a gas station bathroom on their way back from a party and ended up leaving the bathroom in a state of vandalized disarray.

But Lochte didn't look drunk when he told Billy Bush the next day that he and the other guys had been robbed at gunpoint by a man posing as a cop who bumped into the taxi the swimmers were riding in to get them to stop—a horror story come to life for anyone spooked by pre-Olympics headlines about crime run amok in Rio. And he presumably wasn't drunk three days later when, from his home in North Carolina, he repeated the majority of the story to Lauer on the phone but altered a few details, such as where, exactly, the robber was pointing the gun.

Never mind that the foursome were caught on surveillance video looking perfectly jolly when they returned to the Olympic Village a little after 6 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 14, after supposedly being mugged.

Which brings us to a simple question: How delusional does a person have to be to believe that he can get away, in this technological age, with telling the media, with telling police, with telling government officials—heck, even with telling his mom—a big, splashy public lie?

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Even if there hadn't been security cameras everywhere, including at the gas station where a manager and at least one armed security guard confronted Lochte, Feigen, Conger and Bentz and demanded they pay for the damage they'd wrought, with the amount of media on the case (not to mention the law enforcement looking into this truly international incident), it was only a matter of time before the whole story unraveled. And it isn't only technology (including all the different kinds of social media) that's making it increasingly impossible for anyone of note to publicly lie, since simple photographs, VHS-era surveillance and audio recordings have been poking holes in tall tales for decades.

There's a reason why people tack "-gate" onto words to denote a scandal, after all.

AP Photo, Getty Images

To put it simply, it isn't human nature to let people get away with things. No one likes being duped. Some of us can barely acknowledge what's blatantly true, preferring to argue to the point of exhaustion even if just to play devil's advocate, let alone allow anyone to lie. That's who we are as a people, for better or worse (though it's usually—no matter how disappointing, demoralizing or sometimes tragic the big reveal—for the better).

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As one unmasked public figure after another has taught us, someone has to be so egomaniacally convinced he's in the right—or just that desperate—to think for a second he won't be found out, it boggles the mind to imagine in what world the liar thinks he's living in. (Or she, but just for brevity's sake, we're sticking with he's.) Moreover, I don't mean in the right, as in, a married congressman who's been tweeting pics to women he's meeting online necessarily believes he's not doing anything wrong; but rather, he thinks he deserves a pass in the court of public opinion, like the time investigating him would be better spent elsewhere looking into someone who was really doing something wrong.

That at least has tended to be the case with the more bold-faced lies told in recent memory, from Lance Armstrong repeatedly denying doping charges and John Edwards continuing to insist he didn't father a child with mistress Rielle Hunter even after admitting to their affair, to Tiger Woods trying to downplay his solo Escalade crash in his front yard and comedian Steve Rannazzisi letting people believe for years he had escaped the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, when in reality he had been nowhere near the World Trade Center on the day when 2,606 people were killed at Ground Zero.

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Lies of different levels of severity, all exposed. Because lying, especially once a whiff of truth has been sensed in the air... Just. Doesn't. Work.

Someone or something will smoke you out, whether it's a handful of intrepid journalists, the police, Oprah, your texts or your own blood.

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Sure, people get away with a zillion little lies in a lifetime. A face-to-face or one-on-one lie is told and accepted as truth at a rate that would probably terrify all of us if someone stopped to figure it out (and wouldn't mind losing all faith in humanity in the process). And obviously there are lies being told in the upper echelons of politics and business that we'll never know about, because that's how the "system" works.

But these ill thought-out stories—about bad behavior, about sex, about doping, about being somewhere and witnessing something you totally did not see: They're useless. Even if the liar has somehow convinced himself that they're well thought-out, they're not. Once it's public, he will be found out, whether his behavior was really, truly bad or not horrible but just really dumb.

AP Photo/Michael Sohn

And while Ryan Lochte's story was hemorrhaging water from minute one, and his initial version of events was so bizarre it was almost a relief to find out he didn't tell an armed robber "whatever" when a gun was held to his head, the thing he still has in common with the most well-known pants-on-fire types of our time is ego.

Ironically, it was Lochte's initial apology that made him look even worse (thought not as bad as John Edwards looked when, while apologizing for betraying his wife, he offered to take a paternity test that in hindsight he would've had to fake to prove he wasn't daughter Quinn's biological father). Because the 32-year-old swimmer was still mainly just apologizing for not reacting more responsibly in the face of the scary behavior of some out-of-line Brazilians. And he didn't even come up with that woeful excuse until Friday, five days after the incident and two days after Conger and Bentz were pulled off their flight while trying to leave Rio.

Ryan Lochte Reflects on Exaggerating Rio Robbery Story: If I Hadn't "We Wouldn't Be in This Mess"

Lochte isn't really enough of the mastermind type to believe he was shrewdly trying to take advantage of the fragile socioeconomic climate in Rio de Janeiro—he certainly isn't the first person to transfer the blame for his own wrongdoing onto a phantom criminal of another race or ethnicity. And when Billy Bush caught up with him on the beach hours after the incident occurred, maybe he was hungover and his (non)thought process at the time was to believe that, once he'd told someone anything, that would be that.

But the tiny Speedo bathing suits that Lochte will no longer be wearing as a paid endorser of the brand can hold a thousand times more weight than that toothless apology and the rueful in-person interview he gave to Matt Lauer on Sunday, days after he should have just admitted to being an utter bonehead.

Before going to Rio, Lochte—a 12-time Olympic medalist—apparently didn't do much homework on how not to piss off the host country and avoid embarrassing your own. But with his future as a competitive swimmer for Team USA now hanging in the balance, he may want to take some time to brush up on, not only international relations, but the history books, too.

Lesson No. 1: There's no such thing as a public figure who's too smart, or too dumb, to get caught in a lie.

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