"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."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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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.
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