Why US swimmers are being held in Rio to discuss a robbery

Three of the four US swim team members in a group Ryan Lochte said was robbed at gunpoint early Sunday have been kept in Brazil to answer questions.  

Matt Dunham/ AP
Fans wave their arms during a men's water polo preliminary round match between United States and France in the Maria Lenk Aquatic Center at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016.

Two members of the US Olympic swim team, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz, were removed from their flight back to the United States, detained, and then released overnight, as Brazilian authorities seek additional information about the four athletes' claim that they were robbed early Sunday morning.

Inconsistent reports from the swimmers about the robbery and a lack of evidence are cited by Brazilian officials as justifying the moves. But there's a political dimension too. Many Brazilians express frustration over media coverage of Rio's crime and security problems, and worry that a potentially false story could further damage the country's reputation.

"We can confirm that Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz were removed from their flight to the United States by Brazilian authorities," Patrick Sandusky, the US Olympic Committee spokesperson, told Reuters. "They were released by local authorities with the understanding that they would continue their discussions about the incident on Thursday."

A third member of the swim team, James Feigen, is also in talks with Brazilian authorities and is expected to make statements on Thursday. Ryan Lochte, the 12-time Olympic medal winner who first said the group had been robbed at gunpoint early Sunday morning, was not detained because he had already returned home to the United States. 

Originally, in an interview with NBC, Lochte said that the incident occurred when men dressed as police pulled over their taxi after they left a party. 

"The guy 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 told NBC. "He took our money, he took my wallet – he left my cell phone, he left my credentials."

In a telephone interview Wednesday with NBC's Matt Lauer, however, Lochte said the robbery occurred at a gas station where they had stopped to use the bathroom and that the gun had simply been pointed in his direction, not held to his forehead. When asked about the discrepancy, "I think he feels it was more of a traumatic mischaracterization," Mr. Lauer, NBC's Today Show host said.

The taxi driver has not come forward to testify, and although the swimmers reported leaving a party at the French delegation at 4 a.m., security camera footage of the U.S. Olympic delegation shows them returning to the Athletes Village at 7 a.m. The journey would typically take half an hour. 

"You can see the supposed victims arriving without signs of being physically or psychologically shaken, even joking amongst themselves," Judge Keyla Blanc de Cnop said in a statement, according to The New York Times, referring to video of the swimmers returning to the Olympic Village after the party. 

For some Brazilians, the possibility that the robbery story could have been made up, or exaggerated, adds to mounting frustrations over Olympics coverage, which have often focused on Rio's crime, poverty, and corruption. Even an inaccurate story might further reflect badly on their city, some residents fear, according to the Times. 

Some American athletes and journalists have joined their international peers in speaking out against the continued fixation on Rio’s challenges, saying that it discolors the spirit of the games.

"Yes, crime occurs in Rio," writes Teddy Greenstein, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune reporting from Rio. "This is a city of 6.3 million where, sadly, high unemployment and extreme poverty exist.... But enough with the click-baiting stories that paint this place as some kind of urban apocalypse."

"Why do we insist on indulging this negativity when there is so much potential for a culture of optimism and positivity in and around the Games?" US rower Megan Kalmoe wrote on her blog last month. 

"The people of Brazil have opened their country and their hearts to the global community to engage with us during this incredible event that will bring people together from every corner of the earth to celebrate humanity on a truly basic level," she added. 

On the other hand, it's not like crime has disappeared because the Olympics arrived. The New York Times reported:

The chief of security for the opening ceremony was mugged at knife point on Friday night as he left Olympic Stadium; a stray bullet landed in the equestrian arena’s media tent on Saturday, just missing a New Zealand sports official; and on Saturday night, Portugal’s education minister was assaulted as he strolled along Rio’s upscale lagoon, the site of the rowing competition.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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