Ryan Lochte Epitomizes White Privilege and U.S. Foreign Policy

Olympic athlete grillz

The harrowing tale of American Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte and his fellow athletes being held up at gunpoint and robbed in Rio de Janeiro by men disguised as police officers was all the rage in the media last week. It was the story that was the topic of seemingly everyone’s conversation, and it seemed to conform to the common perception of Rio and Brazil in general as being crime-ridden and not suited to hold the Olympics. In the words of one Facebook user’s comment on a Huffington Post article that first reported Lochte’s story, the mugging proved that it was “not a good idea to award the games to a third world country… a nice idea in principle but it just doesn’t work and they can’t pull it off…” There’s only one problem. Ryan Lochte’s story about being mugged by random criminals turns out to have been a complete fabrication. And the media that reported his claims without question as if they were facts are having to wash the egg from their face after getting it all so incredibly wrong. This wasn’t just a case of having been fed unreliable source material. This is a case of the media and the public falling victim to confirmation bias. To these observers and commentators, the entire scenario described by the swimmer seemed to confirm their preconceived notion of white innocence and black criminality.

It all started on August 14, when news broke via Ryan Lochte’s mother that the swimmer, along with 3 other Olympic gold medalists, had been robbed at gunpoint while out in Rio in the early morning hours Sunday. It didn’t take long for Lochte to recount for the media what allegedly transpired. According to him, he and teammates Gunner Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen were pulled over while riding in their taxi by several men posing as police officers. They were pulled over at a gas station and were immediately ordered to get on the ground. All of them complied with the orders, except for the fearless Ryan Lochte, who claims he wouldn’t do so because “We didn’t do anything wrong.” That all changed, however, when “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 cell phone, he left my credentials.” This is where the first hole in the athletes’ story emerges. For if Lochte and the others really had their wallets stolen from them, why were they still in possession of them hours later as they passed through an X-ray machine upon reentering the Olympic Village? Surveillance footage “showed that the men were carrying all the belongings which they had claimed in sworn statements to police had been stolen.”

Almost immediately after the news story broke thanks to Ileana Lochte, who was understandably concerned about her son, the International Olympic Committee Director of communications Ryan Adams denied that it was true.

There was even minor backlash because of it.

As it turned out, Adams wasn’t the only one who wasn’t buying the American swimmers’ story. Chief among the doubters were none other than the Rio police who, try as they might, made little headway when it came to corroborating Lochte’s tale. In fact, what their investigation pointed to was the exact opposite. Interviews with employees at the Barrada Tijuca gas station where the robbery allegedly took place led authorities to believe the four swimmers were incredibly intoxicated and acting erratically after leaving a night club, pissing on the walls of the convenience store even after being directed to the restroom by the store owner and his employees. When one of the athletes damaged the door to the restroom, the authorities were called which is why the athletes were stopped as they returned to their taxi. One of them got into a heated exchange with a security officer, leading the officer to briefly pull out his gun. It was never aimed at Lochte’s forehead as he claimed. Allegedly they gave cash to the owner before leaving in order to help pay for the damages they caused. Thus the supposed “robbery” was not much of a robbery at all. The store owner described what the athletes did as “pure vandalism.”

By Thursday the entire story was unravelling for the entire world to see, with Lochte’s teammates Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz pulled from their flight and temporarily prevented from returning to the U.S. so that they could be questioned by Brazilian authorities. It was then they confessed what had really happened. Lochte on the other hand was back in the United States before anyone could even suspect his elaborate fraud, leaving his teammates to fend for themselves. Interestingly enough, it was Lochte’s second account of the situation given in an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer Thursday which exposed further inconsistencies in his account. In this revised account, Lochte and his teammates were no longer pulled over at the gas station, but were stopped as they were leaving the gas station. He said they’d stopped there to use the restroom (no mention of pissing on the walls of course). Also in this revised edition, the ‘fraudulent police officer’ didn’t hold a gun to his forehead. Instead he just aimed it generally in their direction.

Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of excuses made for the cherished American Olympic athletes. “These kids tried to have fun,” said Rio 2016 Olympic spokesperson Mario Andrade. “Lochte is one of the best swimmers of all time. They competed under gigantic pressure. Let’s give these kids a break. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.” This sentiment was echoed on the TODAY Show Saturday morning, with television anchor Billy Bush seconding Andrade’s statement and chalking the incident up to a “misunderstanding” due to the Rio officer’s speaking Portuguese. (Al Roker was having none of that.)

Neither Mario Andrade nor Billy Bush seem to be able to appreciate the fact that Ryan Lochte is 32 years of age, hardly a ‘kid’ by any standards other than white privilege standards. And that is what this boils down to. Imagine for a moment that a Brazilian athlete or an American athlete of color were to behave in such a way at a gas station in the U.S., going so far as to get into an argument with a security guard and resist arrest. They would never have left that gas station alive. Look at the way Olympic tennis player James Blake was treated by the NYPD in 2015 simply for leaning against a wall. He was entirely minding his own business when he was brutally attacked by a plainclothes police officer who violently tackled him to the ground and treated him like an animal in what cops later claimed was a case of “mistaken identity”. Had Mr. Blake made even the slightest hint of resistance to the plainclothes police officer, he would undoubtedly have lost his life. And had he not been James Blake the tennis star, he wouldn’t have been recognized so suddenly by the second officer. He would’ve been lost in the system, falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit.

Beyond that, there is something metaphorical about an American athlete going to the Olympic Games in another country and pissing on their walls, only to turn around and cry victim when it turns out the locals don’t rather like being pissed on. Following the European colonial playbook, Lochte played on the perceptions his countrymen have of Brazil and Latin American countries in general as having nothing more to offer than crime and poverty. The same way the white Christian settlers demonized the Indigenous Americans as “savages” and Donald Trump demonizes Mexicans as “rapists”, Ryan Lochte essentially demonized the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro as nothing more than a bunch of thieves. In this way he is the perfect representative of his country’s foreign policy, showing no respect for international standards of decency, behaving as if we are the “exceptional” nation, caring nothing about other cultures, and fabricating evidence to make the U.S. appear an innocent victim while those we invade and oppress are tarred with a brush of criminality and terrorism. If there’s one silver lining in all this for Lochte, it’s that some of his compatriots have done much, much worse. After all, at most he’s only pissed on a wall. In Afghanistan, his American countrymen piss on actual human corpses.


19 thoughts

  1. great read and very sad and confusing why someone would want to literally piss of so many people and do what they did. Whats was there thoughts behind basically urinating in open public..

    1. Well, I’m certain alcohol had something to do with it, but it’s also not giving a damn about respecting the homeland of others. It all comes with the territory of being “exceptional.” What interests me more is how careless and disrespectful they were in the aftermath with their lies and deceitful story about thieves and criminals mugging them when nothing of the sort happened.

  2. I abhor the lie that was told by these young men. I think there is more to this story though. I am willing to accept the possibility there may have been a bit of “extortion” involved which does not alleviate the wrongful actions. . Lochte has ruined his reputation and brought shame on himself, but only on himself. I hardly see how his being an American has contributed to this shameful incident. He may be privileged but to assume that being an American makes one privileged is absurd, look at the ghettos and the poverty, the homeless…America is like every other country, there is suffering here.

    1. Heartafire — Your name implies you may be compassionate, and your response has a gentle tone, so I will give you benefit of doubt and not assume you are being willfully ignorant about dynamics of American racism.

      But you dismiss so many of the main points Caleb Gee explores here. Please go back to the basics and reference the overlapping dynamics of Racism 101 to get a better grasp of what white privilege truly is on an individual level and by extensive what it implies for while people and their cultural foundations collectively.

      Then, consider reading Caleb’s courageous and insightful article again.

      Yes, you can….You can have that break through. You’ve got the potential.

      If I sound condescending, I don’t really mean to. I just get tired of some white people pretending that evil or other ill intentions could not possibly exist among other white people, as there must be some plausible explanation for their behaviors.

      Excuses and lack of accountability have always boosted benefit of doubt privileges for the average white male in America.

      But if black and brown people are accused of lying, criminality and other bad behavior, these same white people seeking to prove white innocence at all times barely speak up because the stereotypes reinforce their own biased worldviews and help keep them in their comfort zones.

      1. minor correction in 2nd paragraph — meant to write:
        by EXTENSION what it implies for while people and their cultural foundations collectively.

    2. I don’t think being an America automatically makes someone priveleged per se. But his behavior at the Olympics is akin to the attitude of “exceptionalism” that the US has claimed for itself on the world stage.

  3. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    Complete facts here. I agree with mentioned points.
    Lochte irepresents the USA. IMHO, this man simply lied … not exaggerated, like he say in an interview with Matt Lauer on 8/21, almost a week after the fact.
    This is an adult who disrespected his country, the hosting country, his team mates, insulted local police, filed false reports, made up lie after lie, left his friends on their own after high-tailing Brazil … To me, he has no redeeming value. Actions have consequences and he should be held highly accountable! Endorsements, his future career, HIS swimming … he destroyed all himself. Apologizing? Too little, too late!
    Yet, I sadly think he’ll be back. White privileged & the USA!

    1. Have you read his “apology”? It was one of the worst ever, essentially blaming his behavior on being in a foreign country and not knowing the language.

  4. The action of this man have nothing to do with these racial theories of demonization. This incident is not proof of anything other than the individual’s conduct. I would enjoy pissing on terrorists of any ilk.

    1. And you know those people were “terrorists” because of what? Because the US government and military SAID so. Who are the people who invaded and occupied the foreign country in the first place? Why aren’t these people pissing on people they invaded considered terrorists? And no, this athlete would not be treated with such leniency were his skin tone not white. When James Blake can’t even stand against a wall without being brutalized by police, it’s hard to argue there isn’t a double standard.

      1. Oh, yes . Certainly a double standard as you posit. Of course we don’t know anything about the alleged bad guys. I meant the terrorist performing horrible things all over the word not alleged Rio incident. Yes I understand people consider US as terrorist certainly for killing 1 million people in Vietnam. The British characterized the Sam Adams boys as terrorists at the Boston Tea Party. As Napoleon said “He who wins the war writes the history”.

        1. Yes, I just feel that once someone has gone to the point of urinating on dead corpses they’ve essentially lost any moral leverage than might have ever had.

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