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.