RIO DE JANEIRO — Judging from the inept apology that American swimmer Ryan Lochte finally issued Friday for vandalizing a gas station bathroom in Rio de Janeiro and then concocting days of lies about it, the American swimmer still doesn’t get why he has become an international disgrace. And maybe he never will.
The three-paragraph statement he posted on Instagram Friday still spoke only to Lochte’s embarrassingly blinkered American sensibilities. There was scant indication that he truly understands why many Brazilians were so badly offended by him that law enforcement and residents here decided to make an example out of him and the three swimmers he rode into Ipanema with Sunday night, intent on a night of partying.
Judging from the apology Lochte issued, you’d never know he is a 32-year-old man who has been to four Olympics and traveled the world for over a decade. This wasn’t exactly his first rodeo outside Peoria. The truth was he got drunk, trashed a gas station restroom, tried to get away in a taxi with teammates Jack Conger, Gunnar Bentz and James Feigen, then lied to his mother, NBC, Olympic officials and authorities about it. And this is his idea of an apology:
“It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you demand money to let you leave, but regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been more responsible…”
The bigger insult was Lochte’s lies evoked some of the nastiest stereotypes and tropes that Rio de Janeiro and Brazil have been dealing with in the run-up to these Games. And after being demeaned as a lawless, filthy, cesspool of a country ridden with pollution, disease and corruption, after hearing over and over that Rio never should have gotten South America’s first Olympics in the first place, some people here finally had enough. Then they decided to respond to Lochte in kind — stereotype for stereotype — by bagging him and three other trophy Ugly Americans and making them do a perp walk for a change before the rest of the world. Not Brazil.
So while a lot of this scandal has been driven by Lochte’s lies and lunkhead behavior, it hasn’t been only that.
The accelerant — at least here in Brazil — is also the psychological backdrop that these Games have been playing out against. And if you don’t have a feel for that sitting back in America, the sight of that Brazilian judge ordering all four American swimmers to surrender their passports and not leave the country (Lochte lucked out; he was already gone) — all over some drunken fibs and the trashing of a bathroom? — may indeed not make a lot of sense. The same goes for early reports that Feigen was at an undisclosed location and the U.S. consulate was involved. The same goes for the decision of authorities to go to the airport and actually pull Conger and Bentz off the plane with hordes of photographers at the gate to capture the moment.
Lochte’s disparagements touched a nerve. In addition to everything else, Brazil is a place of enormous class divides. It’s a country that’s often embroiled in discussions about how much skin color determines your place in the “caste” system, or if a caste system exists at all. Many people didn’t want the Olympics here. Their daily life is a grinding struggle.
The sight of a privileged white jock like Lochte dropping in and out of here — but not before trashing some property, complaining to security guards when they called him on it, then being exposed for fabricating another story and generally behaving more like a petty criminal than the Rio he invoked — was galling to Brazilian ears.
Rio mayor Eduardo Paes captured the feeling succinctly Friday when he said he accepted the U.S. Olympic Committee’s apology but felt nothing but “pity and contempt” for the swimmers.
Conger and Bentz were taunted at the airport by chants of “Liars!”
Brazil was a far different country when it landed the Olympics eight years ago. The Brazilian economy was chugging along. The organizing committee sold the country to the IOC as an exotic place of unique beauty and natural wonders, white sand beaches and a sports-mad public. Hopes were high that the Games would create desperately needed infrastructure improvements, help clean up the local waterways and beaches, help attract tourists and businesses.
Then it didn’t happen. Hardly any of it has happened. Even after the World Health Organization chimed in with advice about the mosquito-born Zika virus, the Olympics kept saying they were still coming. Money kept flying out the door. What could’ve been a triumph hasn’t felt like one. The torch relay was hijacked a few times. Anti-Olympics demonstrations have continued almost daily here. A handful of other athletes were mugged. For real.
But the paradoxical thing is, while Brazilians are still sharply divided about hosting the Games, Lochte’s insult has seemed to unite many of them. It feels like a classic of case of we can say what we will about ourselves. But don’t you outsiders dare say it.
And still, by continuing to cast shade on others with his tepid apology — and never worse than in his line “regardless of the behavior of anyone else” — Lochte again failed to take total responsibility or acquit himself of some of worse things that have been said about him. In his apology he claimed he has learned some “valuable lessons.” It’s still not clear what they are.