RIO DE JANEIRO — Leave it to Ryan Lochte to be at the center of scandal that started in a gas station bathroom and exploded into an international incident.
Lochte and three U.S. Olympic swimming teammates turned the Rio Games into another showcase for the Ugly American. The U.S. tops the medal count for offending hosts, committing culturally insensitive gaffes and behaving stupidly.
Turns out Lochte’s harrowing tale of being robbed of $400 by thugs masquerading as police officers who held a gun to his forehead was a little too elaborate. Turns out after a night of partying at France House, Lochte, James Feigen, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger got in a taxi, which stopped at a gas station at 6 a.m., where they walked into the restroom none too steadily and peed against the wall, broke a door and a mirror. We don’t know exactly what happened inside the WC, but the group was drunk and rude.
Security camera footage shows they got back in the taxi and were approached by a security guard who appears to shove a gun through the driver’s window, demanding compensation for the damage. Next, from another angle, we see the swimmers ordered to sit down on a curb. One raises his hands in the universal “Don’t shoot” gesture. Lochte stands up and appears to hand over cash.
Part of their original story — which Lochte altered during a “Today” show interview — was true. They were threatened with a gun, possibly two. But their dishonesty about the altercation angered Brazilians and local authorities, who removed two of the swimmers from the plane they had boarded to return home, confiscated their passports and detained them for questioning. They were shouted down by a mob as they left a police station Thursday. You don’t lie to the police and insult their intelligence no matter what country you’re in. Lochte had already flown home and he and his lawyer didn’t understand what all the hubbub was about.
That’s one problem with obliviously arrogant Americans. They just don’t get it.
In crafting their story as victims, Lochte and friends gave off the same air of entitled superiority as Donald Trump: The USA is No. 1 and your Third World banana republic is uncivilized compared to us.
They hit on the idea of exploiting Rio’s reputation for rampant, violent street crime. Who wouldn’t believe they’d been rolled by a cab driver in cahoots with thieves flashing fake badges? Who wouldn’t be sympathetic to their plight?
While they don’t pretend their city is a paradise, Rio residents were immediately suspicious. The details didn’t add up. Why did the swimmers still have their wristwatches and cellphones when they returned to the Athletes Village?
“Whatever,” Lochte said, when pressed, affecting his surfer dude persona. Lochte is an affable man but he must not realize how much he has hurt Cariocas who went to so much effort and expense to stage these Games and show off their city’s good side.
It’s happened before. At the 1998 Nagano Games, the U.S. men’s hockey team trashed their rooms. At the 2000 Sydney Games, the members of the men’s 400-meter relay team acted like clowns while preening and flexing during their victory lap. On the medal podium, Maurice Green stuck out his tongue for the cameras. The self-congratulatory display did not go over well with fans or their opponents, nor did James Carver’s taunting reach back at fellow hurdlers, urging them to keep up as he passed them in a heat. Swimmer Amy Van Dyken spat into her opponents’ lanes. Dream Team III mocked their weak rivals. Americans thought it was bad-ass. The rest of the world thought it was crass.
There’s a reason linguistically limited Americans are known around the world for talking too loudly while enunciating words in English (“HOW MUCH IS THIS T-SHIRT?”) and complaining about the foreign-ness of foreign countries (“Honey, it’s another damn breakfast without Cheerios.”): Because we do those things.
While the level of poverty in Rio is staggering, the gulf between rich and poor is heartbreaking and crime has been on the rise, the danger level on most streets is not dramatically worse than parts of Miami or New York City circa 1980s-90s.
Guns are a common sight here. A friend who is a Rio resident advised us when we rented a car to explore the Green Coast before the Games to have cash handy in case we were stopped by armed police and they asked for a bribe. So you respect local customs.
At age 32, Lochte should know better. At his fourth Olympics, he claimed he’d matured.
We’re used to saying, “That’s Ryan.” He dyed his hair blue for the Olympics only to have it turn out a Lady Gaga/Marilyn Monroe silver/platinum — which turned a chlorine-green tint after a few swims. He’s as likely to get hurt skateboarding or playing basketball as training in the pool. He’s dating a Playboy Playmate.
Bro, listen, don’t lie. That is the No. 1 commandment for celebrities in the public eye. This is 2016, so that eye sees everything. Whatever you say or do will be caught on surveillance or cellphone cameras, posted on YouTube, tweeted to the world, turned into a meme.
Tell the truth and people will forgive. We all do dumb things. Otherwise the lie becomes more complicated and harder to sustain. Ask Lance Armstrong or Alex Rodriguez. And this was harmless compared to doping.
“The boys were under gigantic pressure as athletes,” Rio Games spokesman Mario Andrada said. “They had fun; they made a mistake. Life goes on.”
Andrada was trying to be a kind host, saying frat boys will be frat boys. But the U.S. swimmers were not good guests.
Linda Robertson is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.