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Ryan Lochte’s reality show

April 22, 2013
Ryan Lochte

Ryan Lochte

The first thing to keep in mind when watching “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?,” is that it is a reality show, and like all reality shows, it has nothing to do with actual reality.

There are story editors. There are cameras. There are editors whose job it is to deconstruct an interview into a fun little 5-second “thing,” complete with music, sound effects, freeze-frame shots, zoom-ins, etc.

As someone who has previously worked in TV (and was one of those people following celebrities around while they repeated punch-lines suggested to them by producers), “reality TV” is oftentimes extremely far from the truth. This is entertainment. And judging from the amount of social media response last night while watching the show, people were entertained.

That said, here are five things I learned last night that Ryan Lochte will definitely do during this season of “WhatRyan Lochte (medium) Would Ryan Lochte Do?”:

1.) Let fans see his ugly side.
Swimming is a predictable sport, to some extent. Going into the Olympic Trials or Olympics, you pretty much know who will compete. Likewise, you pretty much know what post-race interviews will sound like. Stop me if you’ve heard these swimming clichés: “I really pushed that five meters,” or “I just wanted to try my best,” or “It was a great race and there’s a lot I can improve on.” For better or worse, Lochte is letting fans see his ugly side. The slurred words. The date miscues. The forgetfulness. This isn’t a mistake. This is a decision on his part to let people see his day-to-day (or what he wants people to perceive his day-to-day to be) in all its good, bad and ugly.

2.) Lochte will become more famous because of this show.
There’s always backlash when it comes to celebrity. It’s part of the contract. But the goal of this series is clearly to boost Lochte’s mainstream presence, and that’s exactly what will happen. There was more social dialogue about this show than many actual swim meets. Lochte will become a very mainstream “thing,” and it’ll be interesting to see how far it goes. Whatever the case – love it or hate it – Lochte is more famous now than he was at the Olympics. He has increased his mainstream presence, which seems to be his goal for the show.

3.) We won’t see as much swimming from Lochte as… other things.
This isn’t a show about swimming. There are also a lot of adult themes and materials in this show, like drinking. So parents, it’s not a show for kids to watch (or emulate.) While there were some impressive montages of Lochte’s training, it was merely impressive given all his previous-night’s extra-curricular activities. I do hope that we will see more of the “good side” of Lochte, like how he signs every autograph for kids, poses for every photo, and talks (and genuinely connects) to many of his fans. I suspect we’ll see some of that as the season goes on, and as the editors humanize Lochte a bit more than his “Jeah!” catchphrase. But this show isn’t so much about his swimming or training as it is about his nightlife, family, friends and outside-the-pool activities.

4.) This show doesn’t affect the sport of swimming.
A lot of people were talking about how this show affects swimming, positively or negatively. I thought about that a lot last night after the show’s conclusion. Some were tweeting that the show was a negative thing for the sport. Others basked in all the attention a swimmer was receiving. I asked a non-swimming friend of mine, “Do you think this show positively or negatively changes people’s perspective on swimming?” She replied, “Neither.” She’s right. Yes, Lochte will be more famous than ever, but swimming, I believe, is bigger than any persona now. I sincerely believe that gone are the days when individuals pushed the entire sport’s mainstream influence. Sure, some people will tune in to swim meets to watch Ryan, and that’s great. But I really don’t think the show does much for the sport either way. Swimming is just so much bigger than a reality show, and so much bigger than any individual. We really shouldn’t watch one episode of one reality show and make huge sweeping declarations like, “This is the best thing for the sport of swimming!” or “This is the worst thing for the sport of swimming!” It’s neither.

5. We’re starting to see a divide between the sport and its participants.
This was a long time coming. Swimming is a sport where its participants are put on a pedestal, where if you are an Olympian, you are supposed to act a certain way publicly and privately. Of course, everyone knows this just isn’t true. Olympians party. Swimmers have dating lives. People are human. We’re starting to see a number of veterans in the sport unveil their own very personal stories, such as Amanda Beard and her struggles in the spotlight, or Dagny Knutson and her battles with an eating disorder. Ryan Lochte is so polarizing right now because he’s letting people see another side of an Olympian, and he’s changing the stereotype of what an Olympian should be or is. He’s breaking this model that Olympians must behave a certain way. I’m not suggesting this is good or bad. It just is what it is. This is what the show is doing, visually, for perhaps the first time in swimming. What this will do, I believe, is open up eyes both in Hollywood and the mainstream media to the fact that that there are other stories to athletes than just “I swam a great race.” It might open up and allow some other athletes to show their more true selves and personalities. It might ease up media scrutiny when someone takes a photograph of a famous athlete at a college party.

Then again, it might do nothing like that at all. It might just be an entertaining show produced by an army of producers, cameramen, editors, story editors and executives.

It might just be entertainment.

So don’t take it too seriously. Reality TV is hardly reality. This show, like all heavily-produced, marketed reality TV shows, is supposed to be pure entertainment. Love it or hate it, it definitely accomplished exactly what it sought to.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer.

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