By Terrie Albano
I wanted my second story on Swimming Social to be about Simone Manuel. However, a full-blown international incident is unfolding at the Olympics with U.S. swimmers at the center of it with all sorts of social and political implications.
In the wake of a phenomenal U.S. swim team performance, four U.S. swimmers are caught up in a scandal that has taken more turns than Katie Ledecky swimming the 800-meter freestyle.
After causing a media firestorm with a concocted story about being robbed at gunpoint, Brazilian authorities say Ryan Lochte lied when he said the swimmers, drunk after a night of partying, were robbed at gunpoint in a Rio gas station.
Instead, according to Brazilian police and security video, the athletes vandalized the gas station and security guards confronted them. At some point, the guards did pull their guns because of the aggressive way the swimmers were acting, and the swimmers did give them money to pay for the damage.
The Civil Police chief, Fernando Veloso, told a media conference, “No robbery was committed against these athletes. They were not victims of the crimes they claimed.” The two swimmers pulled off their flight, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz, and the third swimmer involved, Jason Feigen, reportedly told the police they were not robbed.
(For a timeline of events and statements, check out SBNation.)
The phrase “crimes they claimed” will be a matter of speculation for weeks to come.
USA Swimming may or may not act. I would hope they do. Causing an international incident to cover up what amounts to criminal behavior in the Olympic host country not only tarnishes USA Swimming’s reputation, it makes the United States look bad. Apparently USA Swimming has a code of conduct that prohibits fraud and dishonesty. I hope the U.S. Olympic Committee also acts too.
Lochte and his cohorts have effectively taken away the spotlight from the athletes and the rest of the Olympic events. They have angered millions of Brazilians and Americans. I am pissed at them. I think their behavior mars the reputation of the U.S. swim team. Hard to #SwimUnited, the USA Swimming Olympic hashtag, when four of your teammates pull this kind of stunt and try to get away with it.
If there isn’t some kind of consequence for what many see as “frat boy” boorish behavior, it will be seen as another case of “affluenza,” also known as wealthy white guys getting away with bad conduct. Why? Because they’re wealth white guys.
To borrow a line from A Time to Kill: Imagine if these guys were Black. You know the media and every governing body involved would be coming down on them like a ton of bricks.
We’ll see if their defenders use “crimes they claimed” to argue that they were drunk and thought that they were being robbed. The
But beyond the U.S. view of things, there are relations with Brazil. These four swimmers acted like model “Ugly Americans” and as the police chief Veloso said Rio was “stained by a fantastical version” of events.”
The entire course of events “has tapped into one of Brazilians’ biggest pet peeves — gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it,” said Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas to The NY Times.
Rio, like many big cities, has its share of crime but some of the robberies reported happened in the OlympicVillage and not at gunpoint. Brazil’s troubles – from the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff leading to a “coup government” to Zika to poverty and treatment of the poor to water pollution to crime and corruption – have dominated U.S. media reports. Many Brazilians say their country has been treated unfairly by the preponderance of negative stories.
In addition, Brazil and U.S. relations have had tensions both recent and historic. After Edward Snowden brought to light the vast National Security Agency’s massive spying operation in 2013, President Dilma Rousseff, who was an NSA target, gave a scathing speech to the United Nations protesting U.S. behavior. But two years later, frosty relations between Rousseff and President Barack Obama seemed to thaw.
The United States has a long history of supporting right-wing dictatorships throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. From 1964 to 1985, Brazil was ruled by a U.S.-supported military dictatorship.
American reaction to what is being called #LochteGate is mixed. Some have taken an imperial approach of “how dare they” (the Brazilians) exert control over Americans to question Lochte from the get go. Radio sportscaster Jerry Thornton said there was no way he would trust Lochte’s story.
U.S. athletes seemed for the most part to be good guests and not the typical “Ugly American.” At the end of the swimming events, Michael Phelps and others held up a banner thanking Rio for hosting the Olympics. Swimmer and Gold Medalist Nathan Adrian, also a son of a former union local president, and teammate Ryan Murphy said security had been adequate.
“Rio is an amazing city. There are going to be problems anywhere you go and we’ve been briefed on how to mitigate those risks as best possible,” Adrian said.
Glad to hear some positive statements from U.S. swimmers about the host city instead of cynically and dishonestly feeding into a one-sided narrative about Rio — just to cover your ass.