The belief that the athletes we admire are like us, or that we should aspire to be like them, is one of the first to die in the process of growing up as a sports fan. At the age of eight, of course, I wanted to be like Lenny Dykstra. I slid headfirst into bases and couch cushions and anything else with the poor sense to be left on a carpeted surface and in my line of sight, and was otherwise Dykstra-like in that I was always being dirty and rug-burned and willful and excitable and petulant and otherwise and generally eight years old.
At the age of eight, I may actually have been like Lenny Dykstra, but while Dykstra more or less remained an amphetamized, anarchy-tornado eight-year-old throughout his playing career and into his strange and finally felonious adulthood, I realized just a few years after the apex of my Nails-affinity that I wasn't like and shouldn't really want to be like Lenny Dykstra.
This didn't mean, and doesn't mean, that I couldn't enjoy watching Dykstra or appreciate who and what he was, or what he did or how he did it. It was just the beginning of constructing the low wall of abstraction over which adults watch sports. The rare instance of a professional athlete who also seems like an interesting and well-rounded adult—R.A. Dickey or Shane Battier
or Rob Gronkowski—is fun enough, but it's not really necessary. I don't need to agree with an athlete on books or movies or politics, or know that athlete's opinion or need that athlete to have an opinion, for that athlete to add value and enjoyment to my life. All of which is kind of a long way of saying that it doesn't, or shouldn't, really matter that Ryan Lochte seems like a doofishly brash bro of world-historic proportions. That is, to the extent that he seems like a person at all.
If the abstract, thumbnail personalities of professional athletes are in large part the result of an intoxicating cocktail of circumstances—beyond the blinkered single-mindedness required to succeed at that level, there are the unreal amounts of money, decades of adulation and special treatment and attention on an unimaginable scale—Olympians seem to present a different case. There is still the tremendous reality-distorting effect of having media figures ask, quite seriously, how your toe is holding up or whatever, and then delivering a serious answer to that question. But Olympians are younger, for the most part, and have dedicated much of their brief lives to sports so arcane that pretty much no one knows what the hell they are except on a quadrennial, breathlessly-brought-to-you-by-NBC basis. The blue chip sports of the summer games—swimming, track, gymnastics—are so solitary as to be hugely isolating; the hours of practice and refinement they require are still more so.
And then, after all those hours in that vacuum, after years of maybe not even going to school and untold hours to getting yelled at by obscure crusty adults in otherwise empty athletic facilities, these athletes are suddenly—and with the full enveloping force of giggly-giddy idiocy that defines NBC's "Today Show, But Sports" approach to the games—very famous, and very significant. There is no non-abrupt way to jump from absorbing the indecipherable ire—or maybe praise, it's hard to tell given the accent, rapidity and volume—of Martha Karolyi in some echoing gym to weeping fat teenage tears of joy or heartbreak for a primetime audience of rapt millions. If there somehow were, it would surely not be this. That Ryan Lochte can convincingly imitate the cockier-than-average social chair of a party frat at an SEC school is, given the circumstances, actually sort of a miracle of socialization.
Given all that, it's maybe inevitable that many of Lochte's best-known Olympic peers come off as both superhuman and not-quite-human. Male sprinters come off both vague and vain; as buff and preening as high-maintenance NFL receivers, but if those receivers never had to sweat the humbling prospect of an unexpected crossing of paths with James Harrison. Female gymnasts, post-routine, give each other the most dishearteningly perfunctory hugs ever seen on television, and bust dance moves during their floor routines that Charles Star aptly described as "robot learns to flirt." Of course they do: they are under immense internal and external pressure, succeeding or failing in the most public way possible, and are also little fucking kids who have led sufficiently cloistered and obsessively focused lives that they have even fewer coping skills than other humans their age. Of all the feelings that the Olympics can evoke, the one that I've felt most often during NBC's prime-time broadcasts is protectiveness: they are not ready for the attention they're getting, because no one could be.
It's a funny sort of attention, too: total and enveloping but also abstract and diffuse and hugely mediated. The sports themselves are unfamiliar enough that we don't really know how to watch them, and their broader context and NBC's presentation—so scrupulously mainstream and corny as to come all the way around to utter Terry-O'Quinn-is-The-Stepfather insanity—is jarring and overbearing and unfamiliar to those of us who don't watch the network's morning pseudo-news programming. And they're played by teenagers and twentysomethings who—beyond the basic weirdness of humans at that age—are also inhabiting a weird and half-cruel social experiment.
And so we wind up with Ryan Lochte, who is sort of a buff, fratty Kaspar Hauser in a novelty grill and Beats By Dre headphones—a bro-monk who spends much of his waking life in isolated/isolating underwater suspension, before suddenly, briefly becoming the most famous athlete in the world. If Lochte often seems less like a person than Bradley Cooper imitating Matthew McConaughey, it's tough to quite blame him—he's handsome and successful and has heard a great many people tell him that he is the best in the world at what he does and has seen those words borne out, but also he has lived the standard Olympian's experience, flipping between searingly fulsome national adulation and lonesome chlorinated anonymity.
Swimming is a weirdly distancing sport for several reasons—so much time alone in what is as literally out of the human element as possible; the chemicals and the individuation—even before the uniquely jarring, God-like aspect of mastering an earth/wind/fire/water-grade element come into play. "To this day, I'm 50 years old, I get in the water and I feel masterful," Nancy Hogshead-Makar told Deadspin's Rob Trucks. "I feel like I can grab hold of the water, I can move the water." If you have played basketball, or done much running, or even been to a batting cage, you probably know how it feels to dip a toe in the deep waters of unconscious athletic transcendence—doing something well without hesitation or even concrete cognition. I shoot jumpshots for hours to experience thirty seconds of this. But very few people, really, know what it's like to command water, which can after all drown a person if not commanded sufficiently. This is to take nothing away from Ryan Lochte's virtuosic and apparently earnest bro-hood, but that is also a lot to deal with.
Brian Jaeger went to the University of Florida at the same time as Lochte, who was even then enough of a superstar athlete that it seems somehow incorrect to say that he went to school with Jaeger or any of Florida's civilian/non-athlete students. That Lochte was not yet this Lochte, though; he was, as Jaeger tells the story at his Tumblr, just a goofy freshman jock trying to get a beer at a party was out of cups.
He just kind of looked at me. So, I looked around and like MacGyver spotted a Frisbee sitting off to the side and said, “Well, here we go!”
So I filled up the Frisbee with beer and handed it to the kid.
At first, he looked at me and his eyes said, “No way,” but then other people near the keg saw this and realized he was a freshman so brought peer pressure into the equation.
“Drink the beer!” someone bellowed.
So, he looked at it, and at this point people were yelling at him to drink the Frisbee of beer. So, Ryan Lochte gave a final look around, knew what he had to do, and turned the Frisbee up and started chugging.
It's hard to know what sort of person Ryan Lochte will grow up to be, although it's something of a relief and probably a good thing that we and NBC won't be there to watch him become whatever that is. As much as he and his fellow Olympians are giving us now—all the borrowed transcendence and everything else—it will be nice for us to eventually give them back their young lives. He and they will, we can only hope, become well-adjusted and happy adults, albeit ones who will carry with them the strange memories of their superhuman youth. It will probably be better for them if we don't watch.