The gold-medal swimmer is embracing the role of Olympian as entertainer, taste be damned.
Nearly everything we watch these days, from breaking news to the Weather Channel to reality shows about dire medical conditions, is packaged as entertainment. That especially goes, of course, for the Olympics, which stretch for two weeks, include events most Americans don't follow, and happen only once every four years.
The media helpfully accommodates by sifting through the ranks of Olympic contenders in search of those who can be served up as something extra, with some thread of narrative besides training and muscle and world-record times. Athletes who overcame terrible odds or personal losses—a recently dead father, a weird tumor, a childhood illness or eating disorder—are all good candidates to be singled out as heartwarming tales of triumph in the face of adversity. On the lighter side, the graceful, smooth bodies of male Olympic swimmers, from Mark Spitz to Greg Louganis to Michael Phelps, have always been crowd-pleasing hooks on which to hang a story. Sometimes all it takes to catapult someone to front and center at the Olympics is a quirky name or an unconventional upbringing. (Remember downhill skier Picabo Street, with her little blond braids and hippie parents?)
This year, Ryan Lochte, the fantastically talented 27-year-old swimmer who upset Phelps in the games' opening days, has arguably become Olympic entertainer No. 1—not so much because of story or physique (though those are plenty remarkable), but because of what he wears.
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There's precedent for Olympians-slash-fashion-icons like Lochte. Track-and-field star Florence Griffith Joyner's lacy, brightly colored, asymmetrical outfits and elaborately decorated four-inch fingernails caught and held our gaze in 1984 even before her record-setting 200 meter sprints in 1988 astonished the world. Lochte, meanwhile, is a great swimmer with a personal fashion sense best described as ... interesting. That fashion sense has become an integral part of his fame, helping land him on the cover of the June issue of Vogue magazine and into a GQ profile. What's fascinating is the element of purposeful design here: His website says he hopes to go on to build a career designing "men's clothing with an edgy flair."
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Easygoing, lighthearted, with a manner reminiscent of your older brother's awesomely cute jock of a friend, Lochte was transplanted from upstate New York to Florida when he was 11. His look veers well outside of typical indifferent gymwear, embracing bright tropical colors, metal-studded shorts and belts, and many, many sparkly things—raucous plumage worthy of a macaw. Diamond-studded US flag grills light up his smile. His feet sport kelly-green, glitter-covered sneakers of his own design (with his name on the soles), courtesy of his sponsor Speedo; or red, white, and blue high-top kicks with angel wings at the ankles; or velvet slippers with silver monograms embroidered on the toes.
His non-Olympic swimwear consists of tiny scraps of spandex in bright optical-art florals or in bubblegum pink with stars across the front. Silver bracelets encircle his wrists, and diamond-encrusted skull necklaces hang from his neck when it isn't being used to display Olympic medals. During a videotaped interview with John McEnroe, a trip into Lochte's giant walk-in closet revealed trays of flashy watches next to rows of shirts arranged by color, and neatly stacked fedoras and porkpies and baseball caps. He sometimes carries a bright yellow, studded backpack.
What's going on here? His style would seem to shout that he's just a fun, cocky guy—unafraid to wear whatever he wants, unconcerned with questions of taste, and with enough money to completely indulge his yearnings for a fantastic wardrobe. But in a video produced by Speedo, Lochte explains, "All the stuff that I do, like, the crazy shoes I wear—like the grills I wear on the podium, the crazy shoes, all that crazy stuff—like, rock star. It's just all my personality."
You could see a contradiction in that quote: A personality is something you're born with, but style is a series of deliberate choices that shape the image you present to the world. Deciding to look like a rock star (or a nerd, or a college professor, for that matter) is a way to project and communicate who you'd like to be, or in this case, to create the most marketable version of you possible. Lochte's mix of jockiness, hip-hop bling, and tropical frat boy, it would seem then, is part calculated and part genuine. He's an innate showoff, sure, but it's very possible he's also making a career move to try and get a larger share of attention—in case his medals, two gold and one silver so far, won't keep us entertained long enough.