Out in the Open

Elliotte Friedman made the wrong call at Rio and it profoundly affected his world view

When sports broadcaster Elliotte Friedman agreed to call swimming for the CBC at the Rio Olympics, he had no idea that one mistake would have a profound impact on his career, his friendships and his world view.
Elliotte Friedman faced a social media firestorm after making the wrong call in the Men's 200m individual medley at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. (CBC)

It was the call heard around the world — for all the wrong reasons. 

At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Elliotte Friedman was covering swimming events for CBC. He stepped into Steve Armitage's position after the latter pulled out of the Games due to medical problems. Elliotte was doing an admirable job despite lacking experience reporting on the sport.

Calling the men's 200 m individual medley was going well until the last leg of the race, when Elliotte suddenly mixed up Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Phelps won the race, but Elliotte believed it was Lochte who had taken home the gold. It was only moments after Phelps touched the wall that he was told he had been mistaken.

A quick apology followed immediately: "I apologize. I got my lanes mixed up...Phelps with the gold."

He took responsibility again on Twitter.

"I don't like it when people say it wasn't a big deal," Elliotte says. He was disappointed in himself, and felt like he let everyone down — despite the outpouring of public support. The Twitterverse, widely considered to be a holding pen for some of the worst trolls on the Internet, was extremely positive in the wake of his mixup — but it was his journalistic colleagues who were far more critical.

"What I couldn't get away from was the mainstream media," he said. "People who should know better, who took the extra shot — that did bother me."

The honest mistake shook him. 

"The next night was the only time in my career I've been afraid to go on air," says Elliotte.

"The thing that really helped me was I threw myself onto the sword right away. I apologized. I didn't blame anybody else, I didn't make excuses, and I apologized — because that was the right thing to do," he says.

Friedman found some grace under the fiery shame, and a surprising upside. "No one can touch me now," he says. He even reaches out to others going through something similar.

"I tell them that there will be people who will never let you forget it, but those are losers and you don't need to worry about them. I tell them that you will recover. I tell people to go back to their routines. I tell them it will end — it's not as bad as you think it is because right now you think it's really bad… and the other thing I tell them is it will free you. After I went through that, nothing bothers me anymore."

This story originally aired on May 28, 2017