Seven days ago, Fox Sports Australia presenter Ben Way sent out a tweet that he knew would become a big story in Rio. Now how big it became—a global story with a Rashomon feel—this Way could not predict.
Here is Way’s tweet:
This was the newsbreak that sent the Ryan Lochte story into mega-orbit. One week and a million stories, videos, takes and tweets later, America heard (again) from the U.S. swimmer on Saturday night. Through his favorite media venue (NBC), Lochte weakly offered an on-air mea culpa for what he termed as over-exaggerating the details of an incident involving he and three other American swimmers at a Rio gas station
The timeline of events through Saturday is here.
Now here’s the amazing thing: It was a total fluke that Way even came upon this story. He and a camera person were at the Hotel Grand Mercure (next to the Rio athlete’s village) at 8.45 a.m. Rio time last Sunday for an interview with Australian swimmer Mack Horton. They conducted the interview and 80 minutes later were on their way out. But since they were unable to get a cab at the hotel, they hopped on an Olympic shuttle with stops at various hotels as well as the main press center. This is where fate appeared.
“So we walked out of the Grand Mercure and hopped in the shuttle,” said Way, in an email on Saturday. “Once in, a middle-aged blonde woman came out. It was Ileana Lochte (the mother of Ryan Lochte). She was hobbling terribly and looked in great discomfort. We helped her into the shuttle bus and she sat down next to me and our camera gear. The shuttle bus took off. Next stop, the Novotel, was some 3-4 kilometers away. That just so happened to be where we were getting off because we had an interview at Adidas HQ across the road. Shortly into the trip I asked [Ileana] if she was ok. She was clearly struggling with her foot and looked quite distressed. She proceeded to tell me how terrible her stay had been. She’d broken her foot and now her son had been held up at gunpoint. I said ‘That’s terrible? Is he ok?’
She said, ‘Yes, he’s back at the village. I responded ‘Is he an athlete?’ To which she replied: ‘Yes, and he is prone to big nights and that sort of stuff’. ‘He has bleached white hair, or grey hair, or blue hair, I don’t really know what it is.’ My cameraman asked, ‘Is your son Ryan Lochte?’ To which she said, ‘Yes, he is.’”
Way continued the story.
“She went on to say how he’d gone to a party with Thiago [later confirmed as Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira],” said Way. “He’d been held up at gunpoint and they stole his wallet. He was with three teammates at the time. I said, ‘So he’s definitely ok?’ to which she replied ‘Yes, he called me straight afterwards. It’s terrifying as you’d imagine, but he’s back at the base and I’m going there to meet him now. I’m just waiting on a message.’”
Way said when the shuttle arrived at the Novotel, Ileana got a message from Ryan. Way said she looked relieved given it was her first contact with her son in some time.
“Struggling with her foot, we offered to carry her bag to the door,” Way said. “She declined. I then asked if she would repeat what she’d just told us on camera. She politely declined and entered the hotel. The whole trip probably took 10 minutes. Along the way Ileana also asked us questions about our trip and role at the Games.”
Way said he and his camera person walked over to the Adidas’ headquarters, made some notes, and called his employer back in Australia. Fox Sports Australia ran the story at about 10.20 a.m. Rio time on Sunday (11.20pm in Australia).
“Then I took to Twitter at 10.27 a.m. and detailed what she had just told me,” Way said. “I suspected this would be a big story. He’s a six-time Olympic gold medalist, obviously it would create a stir. As if that isn’t enough, violence had been a big discussion point in the lead-up and throughout the course of the Games so it was a touchy subject. What I didn’t predict was the absurdity that would follow. First, the IOC denial. As you can imagine, my Twitter feed went into meltdown, but I had no reason to doubt Ileana Lochte’s version of events, and by this point she had repeated the story to USA Today. I then sent the tweet “For those asking… all I can tell you is what Ryan’s mother told me. And others it would seem. I believe her 100%.” What I did not account for was the depth of deception. She was honest, he was not. And it’s hard to believe a son would put his own mother through that.”
Way said he watched the story unravel over the next few days.
“For the large part, I felt Brazilian authorities were just desperate to disprove it because of the damage it would do to the country’s image,” Way said. “When the footage from the athlete’s village came out, that’s when I knew something shady had gone on. That 7:00 a.m. arrival time didn’t match up at all with the version Lochte’s mother told me. We followed the story until all four swimmers were back on a plane to the States. It’s by far and away the strangest story I’ve ever been involved with—and all feels so unnecessary.”
Way added one last thought.
“Simple lesson: Never lie to your mother!”