Bruno Kelly/Reuters
US Olympic swimmers Jack Conger (l.) and Gunnar Bentz (c.) leave a police station after being questioned in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 18, 2016.

Ryan Lochte's story unravels, and Rio takes a stand

Olympics coverage often offers only a caricatured view of the host city, and police say Ryan Lochte tried to use that to his advantage. 

The story seemed plausible. After all, this was Rio. The warning had already been sounded. Love the Copacabana, worry about the crime.

Now, the story appears to be unraveling.

When United States swimmer Ryan Lochte said he and three fellow US swimmers had been robbed and a gun pointed at his head by someone masquerading as a police officer, the world was appalled, but not shocked.

Who wouldn’t believe he got mugged in Rio?

And that is an Olympic story in itself. It is a reminder that the reality in host cities is usually never as dire or ideal as the portraits painted of them. Cities may seek to host the Olympics as the ultimate photo op, but the picture is inevitably a warped one.

For months, Brazilians have been hearing that their most famous city is a cesspool of corruption and polluted waters, fretted with crime and disease. If Brazilian police are correct, Lochte turned this stereotype against his hosts in an apparent attempt to avoid punishment or gain notoriety.

Now, Brazilian officials are not only pushing back on Lochte's story but also what they perceive as a sort of global condescension toward Rio. 

“This incident has caused so much damage to Rio’s brand abroad that I think Brazilians deserve a clear, consistent account of what happened,” Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas, told The New York Times.

The incident “has tapped into one of Brazilians’ biggest pet peeves – gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it.”

Another episode of 'Olympians behaving badly'?

Rio police say eyewitnesses – including one of the swimmers with Mr. Lochte that night – have said that story is a lie. What really happened, Brazilian police say, is that the four young men had too much to drink, got into trouble by vandalizing a gas station bathroom, then left before police arrived.

As of Wednesday, Lochte was still standing by his account, though he had altered it – saying, for instance, that the gun was not pointed at his head. He is back in the US; the other three swimmers remain in Brazil – with two of them being pulled off a plane as they were about to leave.

The incident, in some ways, would not be too far removed from the usual realm of “Olympians behaving badly.”

A US freestyle skier was sent home from Turin, Italy, for having a brawl with a friend during a night out. An American snowboarder got booted from Vancouver, British Columbia, for posting semi-pornographic pictures while partying with his medal. The members of the US men’s hockey team trashed their rooms in a fit of anger in Nagano.

What is different is Lochte's story.

Lochte's account challenged

On Sunday, Lochte had told NBC that people with police badges pulled over a taxi carrying himself, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen and forced them onto the ground. When Lochte refused, one “pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, ‘Get down,’ and I put my hands up, I was like ‘whatever.’ He took our money, he took my wallet – he left my cellphone, he left my credentials.”

In the police account, given Thursday at a press conference, the US swimmers were not victims. Lochte was at the center of the disturbance, which included breaking items in the gas station bathroom. The gas station’s security guard stepped in, at one point drawing a firearm to “control” the situation when athletes were getting aggressive, then reholstering it when things calmed down.

The swimmers persuaded their taxi driver to leave the scene before police arrived, Rio's civil police chief Fernando Veloso said, offering $50 ($20 and 100 Brazilian reals) to pay for the damages.

One swimmer has confirmed this version of events, Mr. Veloso said, while the others are still being interrogated. The police have not decided whether to file any charges, though police chief Veloso said he “didn’t see any reason” for the three swimmers still in Brazil to stay after they had given evidence.

Why some Brazilians feel maligned

Rio organizers appear to be trying to downplay the incident. From their perspective, dragging out the interrogations of three American 20-somethings accomplishes little except drawing attention away from the sporting events.

“These kids tried to have fun, they tried to represent their country to the best of their abilities,” Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada said. “They competed under gigantic pressure. Let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you take actions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.”

But Lochte’s story strikes a deeper chord for those who feel maligned by the way they've been treated by the international press.

“Everyone thinks of Rio as the place of robberies and this happens," Lucas Alves, an under-manager of the Ipiranga gas station in Rio, told the Washington Post. "People in Rio are annoyed about this. They receive visitors well and this happens. It’s a horrible thing.”

There is no question that Rio has had a rough ride this Olympics, from water quality at venues to cost overruns, a deep recession, political impeachment proceedings, the Zika virus, empty seats at venues, and poor sportsmanship by some who do show up.

And then there’s crime. On Thursday, Veloso acknowledged Rio’s problems, calling it a “violent” city. He also confirmed that the police are investigating another reported mugging, this one of a member of the British Olympic team. The incident led British Olympic officials to send a warning letter to athletes, obtained by the Guardian:

“Rio is NOT a safe environment, and the level of crime has spiked in the last few days,” it adds. “Think very carefully about whether it is worth the risk of leaving the village to celebrate after you have finished competing…. Our strong advice is that it is simply not worth the risk given the current climate in Rio.” 

In this context, Veloso saw an embellished story from an American Olympian as an unnecessary slap in the face.

“We saw our city stained by a fantastical version” of the incident involving the American swimmers, he said. “It would be noble for them to apologize to the people of Rio.” 

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