If medals were awarded for brainlessness, Ryan Lochte would be on the podium. In the space of a few days, as his Rio holdup story dissolved, the American swimmer has emerged as a prize jackass, absorbed by his own image and playing the Rio police for fools.

The only dolt in this saga is the gold medallist and the entitled young men who stayed out with him all night before, police say, inventing a story about being mugged after they caused damage to a petrol station bathroom.

"Liar, liar, speedos on fire, " the New York Post laughed yesterday, labelling Lochte the "Ugly American" on its front page. Which is perhaps a tough verdict for an athlete with 12 Olympic medals - six of them gold - but whose career coincided with that of the great Michael Phelps.

Lochte's fanciful tale reinforced Rio's image as an unsafe place for visitors, even those protected by extreme security measures. There is an echo in this story of the fiction advanced by French rugby player Mathieu Bastareaud, who claimed he had been attacked outside a Wellington hotel during the team's 2009 tour. A shocked Prime Minister John Key apologised to France, before it emerged that the visitor had fallen down drunk.

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Lochte is likely to avoid a court of justice. In the court of public opinion his career has tanked, which for someone who craves the limelight is a far more effective form of justice.