RIO DE JANEIRO — Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say Ryan Lochte had gone on that late-night bender before competing in his Olympic events, not after. What would have happened then?
It’s not too hard to imagine: Representatives of USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee would have conferred. Lochte would have been put on a plane back to the States. He’d have hunkered down at home, ruing his scuppered Olympic dreams. And because we live in a time when notoriety is as bankable as virtue, he’d soon cut a deal to capitalize on his infamy while the Olympics remained hot. Some late-summer music festival might throw up a temporary pool in front of its main stage and bring in Lochte to swim Olympic distances between acts. Lochte-pool-ooza, they could call it. Mosh pit, plunge pool—there’s not much difference.
If you’re having trouble picturing all that, we’re here to help. Because it has happened, and during these Games, no less—not to Lochte, but to another Rio Olympian (now ex-Olympian), a gymnast from the Netherlands named Yuri van Gelder.
Van Gelder took up gymnastics as a five-year-old in a little town near the Belgian border. He was named Holland’s Athlete of the Year in 2005, shortly after winning a World Championship on the rings. But he soon admitted to a cocaine problem and served a two-year suspension. His comeback came slowly, and he missed both the Beijing and London Olympics. But two years ago he did a turn as world No. 1 in his specialty, and in Rio the “Lord of the Rings” was a plausible pick for the podium.
Fast forward to Rio and the evening of Aug. 6, the Saturday of the first weekend of the Games. Before van Gelder headed to the Heineken Holland House in Leblon to meet his Brazilian girlfriend, coach Bram van Bokhoven told him to be back in the Athletes’ Village in suburban Barra de Tijuca by midnight. But even after the Dutch hospitality venue closed at 1 a.m., the two further partook of the city’s nocturnal diversions. Van Gelder didn’t make it back until 6 a.m., waking up several fellow Dutch Olympians with a drunk and noisy entrance. He slept it all off until 3 p.m. and missed a morning practice.
The heads of the Dutch Gymnastics Federation and the country’s chef de mission in Rio met and decided to send him home. “Enough is enough,” said van Bokhoven, before his prize gymnast went off into exile. Van Gelder had slipped unnoticed through Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and secreted himself in his house by the time the story broke back in Brazil.
Opinion in Holland was split. Some people thought he got what he deserved. But others pointed out that van Gelder had never competed at an Olympics and, at 33, probably wouldn’t get another shot. Detecting a critical mass of sympathy, Dutch marketers pounced. Organizers of Lowlands, a rock festival at a theme park east of Amsterdam, struck a deal with the Lord of the Rings to perform his entire Olympic routine on Sunday, the festival’s final day, on apparatus set up just for the occasion.
Van Gelder’s fateful all-nighter began at the Heineken Holland House, where Dutch fans, athletes and officials have enjoyed the company of fellow oranje for 13 Olympics. Up to 4,000 people a day have been filing through the HHH during these Games, to lounge by the pool, get their KLM ticket changed, or crack open the cold product of the title sponsor.
As word reached Rio of van Gelder’s pending appearance at Lowlands, Holland House patrons, like their countrymen back home, were of two minds, though none I spoke to on Friday cared to share their names.
“He let the team down,” said one Dutch fan. “That he performs his act now at a music festival, it’s ridiculous.”
“It’s pathetic,” said another. “A marketing stunt.”
But two men who are partners in an Amsterdam restaurant took a kindlier view. “Everybody will be supporting him there, especially at a music festival where everyone is drunk or on pills,” said one. “Things like that, we forgive very easily.”
His business partner nodded, then indicated the long-necked bottle he held in one hand. “Van Gelder,” he said, “just can’t count very well.”