I am not a big fan of swimming and had never heard of Ryan Lochte before the bizarre story that emerged from the Rio Olympics about how he and three team mates said that their taxi had been pulled over by an unmarked car and some people flashed police badges and guns, one of them pointing at Lochte’s forehead, and robbed them.
That story quickly fell apart. Suspicions were aroused because armed men impersonating police and stopping cars and robbing people at gunpoint seemed too extreme even given Rio’s reputation for high crime. Other details also seemed dubious. As Sally Jenkins writes:
His claim to NBC that men posing as police pulled over the taxi and he heroically resisted the robbers with a gun pressed to his forehead was an especially ludicrous detail — and the very thing that drew the attention of authorities, who know full well that anyone who defies a bandit in Rio gets shot on the spot, and they don’t leave you with your cellphone.
But before and even after the fabrication was revealed, Lochte was the beneficiary of sympathy. Art Broderick, described as a law enforcement analyst for CNN, even had the gall to say, during the time when Lochte’s story was still accepted as true, that police using guns to control people was something that would never happen in the US.
“There was a handgun used,” Roderick remarked. “Now when we talk about a handgun used, we’re talking about Brazil, we’re not talking about the U.S. And I think the Brazilian chief basically said they used it to control the individuals. We don’t do that here in the U.S.”
How lacking in self-awareness can someone be, given the events that have dominated the news in the last few years?
IOC officials also initially downplayed the incident, suggesting that the whole thing was a case of “kids” having “fun” (though Lochte is 32, a little old to have the kid excuse work) though now they are saying that they have started an investigation.
Brazilians, who had worked so hard at putting their country in a good light during the Olympics, were naturally incensed at four privileged athletes falsely tarnishing their image, and were initially inclined to throw the book at them. Kali Holloway says that what this incident really showed is the sense of entitlement that people like Lochte have, that their stories will be believed because of who they are. While he “seemed like a relatively harmless dudebro who we all forgave for being a douche because he won swim races and has a very symmetrical face”, this incident revealed how he tried to exploit the image created by the media in the US about Rio to mask the falsity of his story.
Intertwined with coverage of feats of American strength, endurance and Olympic medal wins has been the narrative of Rio as a poor, dangerous place where athletes face threats of Zika, sewage-infested waterways, chemically tainted pools, crappy lodgings and pervasive crime. Its citizens, many of whom were displaced from their homes even as billions were poured into the games, are overwhelmingly black and brown. The stereotype of the innocent white tourist being shaken down by scaaaary Third World criminals is one with which Lochte and company were fully aware and used to their advantage. (For the record, Ryan Lochte is Cuban-American. He presents, unquestionably, as a heterosexual white American male.) As Damon Young wrote over at VSB, “They know their reckless behavior will be dismissed as boys being boys — even if they’re in their fucking 30s — and they know they can lie and charm and privilege their way into receiving the benefit of the doubt. They made up that story because there’s no reason for them not to believe that anyone would doubt their word; ultimately betting that Rio’s already shaky reputation would allow their story to go unchallenged.”
And it worked, at last initially, earning them an outpouring of sympathy, and led to yet more press about the dangers of Brazil.
During an Olympics in which 20-year-old African-American gymnast and gold medalist Gabby Douglas has faced all kinds of ridiculous criticism for issues I’m not even going to bother dignifying with a citation, Lochte’s lie drives home the pricelessness of white male privilege. Nick Wright, of Fox Sports, wondered aloud about the difference in the reaction had a group of black athletes gotten drunk, fabricated a story about being held up, lied about and to the police, and then had their b.s. uncovered.
Al Roker of NBC also touched a nerve when he marveled at the lenient treatment the media, including his co-host on a show, has accorded to Lochte even for flat out lying, something that would not be accorded to a black or Latino athlete.
Lochte now admits that he “over-exaggerated” the incident.
One of his fellow three swimmers says that the whole fake story was Lochte’s idea. I have since learned that it is quite widely known that Lochte is not the brightest light in the Christmas tree, if you catch my drift, and so the greatest mystery is why his teammates went along with his cockamamie scheme, since he was bound to mess a mess of things.