Once the Rio Olympics finally got underway, it seemed Brazil could heave a sigh of relief that none of the disastrous predictions made about the games would come true. The Zika virus did not break out across the land, unfinished stadiums did not collapse under the weight of the spectators, matches were not interrupted by a sudden political coup – just a healthy amount of Fora Temer (“Out with Temer”) chants. The games may have had some bumps along the road, but they most definitely weren’t headed for a failure. And then, gold medalist Ryan Lochte claimed that he and three other US swimmers were robbed at gunpoint while returning to the Olympic Village in Barra da Tijuca.
From there things got strange. Local police suspected the story may not have happened as the swimmers said; the purported victims began to alter their stories, and Brazilian authorities froze the US athletes’ passports so they would remain in Brazil for the investigation. By then though, Ryan Lochte had already landed in the US, while two of the other swimmers, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger, were detained at the airport.
The story only unraveled further. Video footage revealed the swimmers weren’t robbed as they said and at a press conference on Thursday, Rio police confirmed no robbery took place. And even before the footage came out, locals could see the holes in Lochte’s story, the strangest part being that the swimmers returned to the village with many of their valuables intact. (“What kind of robber doesn’t take your phone?” vendors on Ipanema Beach wondered.) Of course the story grew to ridiculous proportions, partly because Lochte is a ridiculous person, but also because it captures precisely what so many feared would happen at the Rio Olympics. And that the accusations of robbery are coming from a white US athlete will only make the fear stick all the more – even if he’s been proved to be in the wrong.
But Lochte will probably walk away from the incident mostly unscathed. There’s something about being an elite athlete that seems to make men immune to public scrutiny. And even though he does come out looking at least a little bit bad, the incident likely still won’t do much to alter the public’s perception of him. Lochte’s already spent years cultivating an image as an overgrown frat boy; that he would have a “crazy” night out and deface public property and then try to play it off as a robbery isn’t all that discordant with his established image. Imagine instead if this had come from an athlete with a more squeaky clean public persona – or someone who’s not a white male swimmer. The image of someone like Gabby Douglas, who was raked over the coals simply for not putting her hand on her chest during the national anthem, would never survive the scandal. It remains to be seen if Lochte will lose any sponsors over the incident, though if he does, would it really be anyone’s fault but his own?
And unfortunately for Brazil, this incident is very much in line with its public image as well. At least with the image of Brazil where white US citizens get held up at gunpoint on the regular, and even the police aren’t to be trusted. And it’s not as though Brazilians don’t know that petty crime and theft are a problem in their country. They are well aware; it’s a reality they live with everyday. But when wealthy, white athletes from a “first world” country use that reality to cover up their own misdeeds, it’s still Brazil that comes out on the losing end.
Since well before the games started, Rio de Janeiro has been under a microscope, fighting to prove that it’s ready to host a major international event and ready to handle hordes of tourists while keeping them safe. Both locals and foreigners feared Brazil was getting ahead of itself, trying to put on an event it simply didn’t have the money or infrastructure to pull off.
Like Lochte, I’m a white US citizen in Rio, and since the games kicked off, the Olympic areas of Rio have been teeming with heavily armed security forces precisely so that gringos like us will feel safe. “It’s all for you,” Cariocas would say to me when I pointed out the arrival of machine gun-toting police around Copacabana. For me and all the other gringos descending on Rio. And those police will be gone next week along with the tourists.