The bizarre swimming incident

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.


  1. blf says

    I myself am seriously hoping that not only is Lochte Liar Liar Swimming Trunks on Fire given a lifetime ban from (competitive?) swimming, he’s also returned (either voluntary or via extradition) to Brasil.

    Besides an outrageous lie and fast-exit from Brasil (just ahead of the police), he (‘The dumbest bell that ever rang’: US media have their say on Ryan Lochte) is a “‘[…] 32-year-old swimmer is so landlocked in juvenility that he pulled an all-nighter with guys young enough to call him uncle,’ added [Washington Post columnist Sally] Jenkins. ‘His story […] had the quality of a kid exaggerating the size of a fish, and notice how he was the hero of every detail. That was always the most dubious, implausible part.'”

    He then did a notpolgy (How not to apologize: what Donald Trump and Ryan Lochte get wrong).

    I can’t find the article now (I think it was in the (International) New York Times?), but the Olympic Team were given cultural sensitivity training, and specifically instructed to avoid antagonizing the hosts(and others). This über-eejit not only makes false statements to the police, runs aways as the police catch up with him, fails to sincerely apologise, causes a completely unnecessary diplomatic incident, he also had classes beforehand on avoiding doing this, and was warned against doing so.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    He presents, unquestionably, as a heterosexual white American male.

    -- followed by statements that he has a different nationality and his whiteness depends on definition (some versions include the Latin_ population, some exclude).

    Which leaves me wondering, quite idly, whether the quoted statement was intended to cast doubts on Lochte’s heterosexuality &/or maleness.

  3. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham: How lacking in self-awareness can someone be, given the events that have dominated the news in the last few years?

    While it’s true that this does happen in the US, the specific issue of police, security guards, and prison guards extorting money from people in their custody hasn’t been making the mainstream news as it should be.

  4. drken says

    Those of us who follow swimming have known for quite a while that Ryan wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. I believe the word “meathead” has been thrown around from time to time. But, unlike Michael Phelps (he of multiple DUI arrests), he’s mostly been a harmless doofus. Getting in trouble with the law is (to the best of my knowledge) a new thing for him. However, the idiotic way he’s been conducting himself since his arrest doesn’t surprise me in the least. I kind of feel sorry for the two guys who got caught with him. Getting to hang with one of the greatest athletes your sport has ever known must had seemed like a great opportunity at the time.

  5. mnb0 says

    “Brazilians, who had worked so hard at putting their country in a good light during the Olympics …”
    Basically by turning Rio into a military dictature, as everyone who has watched the marathon today will have observed. It’s not that I feel any sympathy for Lochte, but your appeal to emotion in this quote doesn’t quite work with me.

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