RIO DE JANEIRO — You got it all the time when people spoke of Ryan Lochte: A roll of the eyes, a loving grin, that What can you do? shrug. Lochte was everybody’s favorite lunk, a five-star talent with smeary charm, at 32 the world’s oldest teenager. He made swimming loose, mussed up its starchy sobriety with his “dudes” and “jeahs”, and won more Olympic medals than anyone not named Michael Phelps. He was, once, what marketers consigned to niche sports hopefully call a “personality”, the kind that grabs the casual fan, delights late night hosts and threatens, every so often, to conquer pop culture.
In other words, the swimming world long tolerated the all-around great’s many quirks, because, well, Lochte was doing something right. Didn’t he score himself a reality show? Even NPR, an outlet you’d never hear in Spicoli’s van, dubbed Lochte, “the platonic ideal of bro-dom.” And he seemed perfectly harmless.
You felt a residue of that sentiment even Thursday, when Lochte’s half-baked account of being robbed at gunpoint Sunday morning—cooked up with the aid of U.S. Olympic teammates Jimmy Feigen, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz—fell apart under a cascade of video footage, Lochte’s shifting accounts, and conflicting testimony by Conger and Bentz after they were hauled off their return flight home. Though it felt like a career-ender for Lochte, who just last week won his sixth Olympic gold, at least one victim seemed eager to forgive.
“No apologies from him or the other athletes are needed,” said Rio 2016 communications director Mario Andrada Thursday morning. “We need to understand that these kids were trying to have fun. They came here, they represented their country to the best of their ability, they trained for four years and they competed under gigantic pressure. Let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes we take actions that we later regret. They are amazing athletes; Lochte is one of the best swimmers of alltime. They had fun, made a mistake: It’s part of life. Life goes on.”
For Lochte, yes: But he had the luxury of viewing the end of one of the most bizarre episodes in Olympic annals from home. As of late Thursday night, Feigen remained in Rio and, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee, had provided a “revised statement” with the hope of receiving his passport. Conger and Bentz, meanwhile, were interviewed for four hours and 15 minutes by Rio’s Tourist Police on Thursday afternoon; they were then given their passports and permission to leave. As the pair emerged from the Leblon headquarters, a noisy swarm of reporters, cameramen and locals engulfed them en route to a car supplied by the U.S. consulate. Some voices yelled, “Liars,” and “Shame!”
According to Fernando Veloso, chief of Rio’s Civil Police, one of the two swimmers confirmed that no assault on their group occurred, and said Lochte was responsible for inventing the story. Neither Lochte, his attorney, or his agent responded Thursday to SI’s requests for comment. Veloso also said that the remaining swimmers could face charges for falsely alleging a crime and for damaging property, and a fine or up to six months in jail if found guilty. One Brazilian law professor mused that, since the swimmers’ first account instigated a police investigation, there’s even a chance of being indicted for “calumnious denunciation,” punishable by as many as eight years of detention.
But seeing that it’s in the interest of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the State Department, the IOC and Rio 2016 to make this affair disappear, few expect any to face jail time; the return of the swimmers’ passports was the prime condition of their appearance before police Thursday. If Andrada’s stance is representative, and the Brazilian authorities do decide to “give these kids a break,” then soon everyone will be home. In time the affair will assume the air of a boozy adventure, a danger avoided, a crazy tale to tell.
But before we get there (and already you can sense people giving that What can you do? shrug), let’s pause a moment. It’s true that none of the American swimmers were shot or pistol-whipped or beaten. Nobody involved was hurt. Nothing was lost, unless you count the faceless victims who went unprotected, the crimes that weren’t investigated, the criminals that raped or robbed while police resources were devoted to picking apart Lochte’s tale. Let’s not forget that, yet.
The central mystery, of course, is why the tale was told in the first place. The Olympic swim competition, after all, was done; nobody had broken training. Yet upon returning to the Athlete’s Village in the early morning Sunday after a night of partying at Lagoa’s Club France, Lochte told his mother, Ileana, in Rio that he had been robbed en route at gunpoint. The story broke soon after, but Lochte denied it to a USOC official, who denied it to the IOC, who denied it to the press.
That afternoon, though, Lochte’s mother and then Lochte himself, on NBC, asserted in dramatic terms that a robbery had occurred. Four men impersonating police, he said, pulled over the swimmers’ taxi in a false roadblock. Three were forced to lie facedown, but Lochte refused. “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,” Lochte told NBC. “I was like, ‘whatever.’ He took our money, he took my wallet—he left my cellphone, he left my credentials.”
It was a shocking vision, but all too believable to strangers and Rio residents alike. Thievery is a fact of life in most sections of the city; the use of “falsa blitz”, fake DUI roadblocks, in the city isn’t rare. Two weeks before the Games began, a New Zealand jujitsu champion claimed to be kidnapped by uniformed men and forced to give them cash from two ATMs. By Monday, Lochte’s story had taken full hold of the Olympics, forcing Andrada to “apologize to those involved and regret that violence is an issue in these Games.”
But inconsistencies in the swimmers’ account, highlighted by surveillance footage showing their arrival three hours after originally stated, began to crop up. Police also received only vague answers in their initial interview with Lochte and another swimmer, and could find no evidence or witnesses that a crime had occurred. By Tuesday night, investigators were openly skeptical.
“The first information that reached the police was from a taxi driver who drove two young women from the site of the party,” Veloso said Thursday. “That driver heard from the women that they had made out with the swimmers. They mentioned this, and that driver, upon learning about the case, telephoned in an account of what he heard from those young women in the taxi and brought it to the attention of the (tourist police). That suggested that the athletes, or at least one of them, had a motive to tell a story that was not true. If an athlete is in a relationship and doesn’t want that other person to know why he stayed out all night, he has a motive to hide it.”
Local authorities were motivated themselves. Inefficiencies, empty seats and a shrinking pool of volunteers has cast a pall over a Games already undermined by the nation’s political and economic storms; the image of an Olympic great with a gun to his head would not be easily survived. But police could not afford to be wrong, either. “We want to be very careful here, because we don’t want to smear anyone without having all the facts straight,” said an official close to the investigation. “But if his story isn’t true, then he has smeared Brazil.”
After Thursday’s interviews with Conger and Bentz, police were convinced that the story wasn’t true. Instead, Veloso said, the swimmers arrived at a Barra da Tijuca gas station in a taxi, and went to a bathroom; at least one U.S. athlete, according to the USOC, was involved in damaging its door, soap dish and mirror. A security guard approached the cab, warned them not to leave and called police. Lochte was “very exalted,” in his dealings with the security guard, Veloso said, “and appeared to be under the effects of alcohol.”
The security guard then pulled out his gun, the swimmers sat down, and one of them—Veloso said—then offered to pay about $50 for the damage. Thursday night, USOC CEO Scott Blackmun issued a statement calling the athletes’ behavior “unacceptable”, but contended that two security guards brandished guns and demanded payment. Either way, all agreed the money was accepted. The swimmers climbed back into their taxi and drove off.
All in all, that’s not too bad a story to tell one’s mother. Yet Lochte seemingly convinced himself that it’d be better to fabricate one that would hamstring his teammates, insult his hosts, produce a national embarrassment and spark an international incident. Why? The cruelest explanation can be found in the film “Ruthless People,” when a cop looks down at a bleach-haired, dimwitted blackmailer and says, “This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the earth.”
But intelligence was less the problem here than cynicism. Lochte apparently felt that Rio’s well-publicized crime problems were so common, so exhausting, that no one could check his story—and no one would care. And for two days, especially back home in America, he was almost right. “The facts speak louder,” Andrada said. “Everybody saw the story turn around, and we’re obviously relieved—and we might also make internal jokes about the fact—but it’s so clearly obvious that we had done nothing wrong in that particular case, that the facts became very eloquent.”
Yet even as the Lochte story melted away, others rushed in. Early Tuesday morning, a British athlete was robbed at gunpoint; team track officials warned that members should not go out at night, “given the current climate in Rio.” Then, 24 hours later, a gunman forced Australian swimmer Josh Palmer to withdraw $1,000 from a Copacabana ATM. Thus Andrada could not afford to crow about even his one big public relations win. The losses just keep coming.
“The job of Rio as a city and Brazil as a country is to protect our guests,” he said Thursday. “If some were not protected as they needed to be, it doesn’t look right or feel right for me to say, ‘They were in the wrong place.’ I cannot use a lame excuse. In the Americans’ case we took the blow, and later life turned around. But in other cases, we’re 99% certain that people were right to be upset. The world is our guest. We have a job to protect them.”
He said this in a voice both weary and tense: Only three days left to these Rio Olympics. They could use a few good ones.