Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Authorities are investigating inconsistencies in the swimmer’s report about being mugged at gunpoint—a story that would confirm the worst impressions about life in Rio.
Ryan Lochte may be having the most fantastical time of any athlete at the Rio 2016 Summer Games. Not only was he part of the U.S. swimming team that won gold in the men’s 4-by-200-meter freestyle relay, he also claims to have been mugged at gunpoint with three of his teammates.
That story may itself be fantastical. According to the The Associated Press, police have found little evidence to support Lochte’s story. Authorities have been unable to find the taxi driver or any witnesses to the mugging, and Lochte and one teammate were unable to provide any details to the police because they were intoxicated when it happened.
UPDATE 8/18: Authorities in Rio pulled U.S. Olympic swimmers Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz off a plane leaving Brazil over inconsistencies regarding the swimmers’ account of being robbed at gunpoint. A third swimmer, James Feigen, is also in Brazil and cooperating with police. Reuters reports that the swimmers were not robbed but rather damaged a gas station and were involved in a dispute with security guards. The original continues below.
Rio authorities are taking the incident seriously, both the alleged robbery and Lochte’s account of it. According to Jornal O Globo, Brazil’s most prominent news daily, a Brazilian judge ordered Lochte’s passport seized as well as that of another U.S. swimmer, James Feigen, who was with Lochte at the time of the alleged robbery. Police found serious discrepancies between the swimmers’ accounts of Sunday night; meanwhile, security-camera footage from the Olympic Village shows Lochte and Feigen returning with swimmers Gunnar Beinz and Jack Conger without appearing to be drunk or perturbed.
It may be too late for Brazilian authorities to find out the truth. Lochte is already back in the U.S., NBC News’s Peter Alexander reports, having made it out before the Brazilian justice’s order could be executed. The U.S. Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to questions about the reports from Brazil.
“We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge, no lights, no nothing just a police badge and they pulled us over," Lochte said. "They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground—they got down on the ground. I refused, I was like we didn't do anything wrong, so—I'm not getting down on the ground.
"And then 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 took our money, he took my wallet—he left my cellphone, he left my credentials."
Lochte’s story is alarming to say the least. It portrays Rio as menacing and Lochte as heroic—or cavalier about danger. If his story is fabricated, in part or in whole, it is a tale that perpetuates the worst stereotypes as Brazil as a place teeming with criminal activity.
While there’s no good reason for Lochte to lie about being mugged at gunpoint (a point made by his lawyer), it’s easy to see how a lie could take this particular shape. In The New York Times, Roger Cohen writes that the coverage of the Rio 2016 Summer Games has been overwhelmingly negative because the West’s impression of Rio—of a city in a developing country, and of developing countries broadly construed—is negative.
“Brazil is not for beginners,” he observes, quoting bossa nova composer Antônio Carlos Jobim. Cohen continues:
It was not then and it’s not now. It’s a vast diverse country, a tropical United States, whose rich and poor are divided by a chasm. High crime rates are in part a reflection of this divide. Flexibility is at a premium in a culture fashioned by heat, sensuality, samba and rule bending. Life can be cheap. You adapt or you perish.
But Brazil has transformed utterly since the 1980s. Despite its severe and ongoing political crisis, Brazil is a Top 10 economy that isn’t going anywhere. “The commodities boom that propelled rapid Brazilian growth over many years has ended,” he writes, but the nation has hardly descended into the depths of poverty. More from Cohen:
All of which is to say that I am tired, very tired, of reading negative stories about these Brazilian Olympics—the anger in the slums, the violence that continues (including the armed robbery of four American swimmers), the enduring gulf between rich and poor, the occasional organizational hassles, the Russian doping and the Brazilian mosquito, money that could supposedly have been spent better than extending the Metro that now runs from the center to prosperous Barra da Tijuca (so, among other things, enabling the poor to get jobs out there).
So it would indeed be dispiriting if Lochte, one of the most decorated and celebrated athletes from the most powerful country in the world, invented a story with his teammates that summoned the worst sort of visions about the city where he stayed as a guest.
“There is something in the developed world that does not like a developing country that organizes a major sporting event,” Cohen writes. Nevertheless, the criticism of the Rio Olympics may be warranted. If Lochte’s story turns out to be false, however, Cohen’s words will be proven absolutely right.