In this broiling summer of Zika, of floods in Louisiana and fires in California, of the shootings of unarmed black men by police, of police by African-American snipers and of the patrons of a gay bar by a Muslim man, the international brouhaha caused by four American Olympic swimmers at a Rio de Janeiro gas station is more farce than anything else.
By what is now his own admission, three-time Olympian Ryan Lochte, 32, who has won 12 medals in his career, lied about a late-night incident in which he and fellow U.S. swimmers Jack Conger, 21, Gunnar Bentz, 20, and James Feigen, 26 — after a night of partying — vandalized a gas station bathroom and were stopped from leaving by an armed guard.
Those facts, initially determined by investigation and the gas station’s security camera, were twisted in Lochte’s original version into an armed robbery attempt on the Americans in which Lochte and friends were the victims: “They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground — they got down on the ground. I refused, I was like we didn’t do anything wrong, so — I’m not getting down on the ground,” Lochte first told NBC.
Lochte left Brazil before his story began to fall apart. Conger and Bentz were pulled off a U.S.-bound flight and detained pending an investigation, their passports seized by Brazilian authorities. They were eventually allowed to leave after Feigen reportedly agreed to donate about $11,000 to a Brazilian youth sports group in exchange for his freedom.
Sportswriters had a field day with the story: “It isn’t easy being this ridiculous, setting off an international incident and having police reportedly recommend charges in a city where so few laws are actually enforced,” Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel wrote. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins also had choice words about the affair: “Is there anything worse, in any country, than a bunch of entitled young drunks who break the furniture and pee on a wall?” she wrote.
The U.S. Olympic Committee apologized to Brazil for the “distracting ordeal” and Lochte issued a “mistakes were made” apology. In a surprisingly successful Olympics, where the backdrop of Brazil’s crumbling economy and rampant crime problems seemed to have been overcome by the games, those apologies rang strangely hollow.
Maybe this incident will become part of the lore of the 2016 Games. Or maybe it will be forgotten — overshadowed by the impressive athleticism of so many of the Olympic athletes, including American swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, the “Final Five” U.S. women’s gymnastics team and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. But, for now, while we marvel at the impressive accomplishments of Team USA and its opponents, we can’t help but bow our heads in shame.