Robbery of Ryan Lochte shows the real threat of Rio Games: Crime, not Zika

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RIO DE JANEIRO – The most pressing risk facing these Olympics never was Zika, according to many experts. It was local crime. And Sunday’s scare involving American swimmer Ryan Lochte provided more proof.

Conflicting reports initially emerged early on Sunday about the star swimmer being robbed at gunpoint. “I think they’re all shaken up,” Ileana Lochte, Ryan’s mother, told USA Today. “There were a few of them … They were just, they just took their wallets and basically that was it.”

Citing the USOC, the IOC first denied the report, which first was reported by Fox in Australia. The USOC later confirmed the incident, saying Lochte and three other U.S. swimmers, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen, were in a taxi leaving France House early Sunday that was stopped by robbers posing as police.

Lochte told NBC’s Billy Bush the robbers’ car sideswiped the taxi.

“We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge, no lights, no nothing just a police badge and they pulled us over,” Lochte told Bush. “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.

“And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, “Get down,” and I put my hands up, I was like ‘whatever.’ He took our money, he took my wallet — he left my cell phone, he left my credentials.”

Fortunately, by all accounts, no one was hurt. But this is only the latest in a string of incidents that have plagued the Games. A stray bullet somehow landed in an equestrian press conference. Rocks pelted a media bus (which some inside said were bullets). Two Australian rowing coaches were reportedly robbed at knifepoint last week. A Portuguese education minister was mugged. A group of Spanish sailors were held up at gunpoint in May. Two Australian Paralympic athletes were mugged in June. On Sunday, Australia announced it was banning its athletes from going to Rio’s beaches.

The window on an Olympic media bus after it was hit by projectiles when driving journalists. (Reuters)
The window on an Olympic media bus after it was hit by projectiles while driving journalists. (Reuters)

More than 48,700 muggings took place in Rio last year, which was three times the number in New York City, which has 30 percent more residents.

“The petty crime rate, that is a concern,” said Michelle Bernier-Toth, the State Department’s Managing Director of Overseas Citizens’ Services, before the Games began. “There’s a lot of that on a day-to-day basis in Rio. The potential for becoming a victim is even higher.”

Meanwhile, the Zika fears that caused some in the medical community to call for a postponement or cancellation of the Games have so far not materialized. While several male golfers stayed away from Rio because of Zika worries, Sergio Garcia tweeted on Saturday that coming to the Olympics was “my best decision ever!”

This certainly doesn’t mean Zika is a non-story; it remains an international crisis. But there always were precautions for Zika. Preventing local crime is much more difficult.

Part of the challenge is Rio’s layout. It is a city aligned among hills and the beach, meaning the sprawl of most major cities is hemmed in by geography. So tourist areas aren’t that far from favelas, and transportation arteries often wind near both. It can be difficult to tell which areas are safe and which are not. Often, the two overlap.

Add lingering trouble with gun control, poverty and resentment for the Olympics, and it becomes a troubling brew. Despite the hordes of military that patrol the city during the Games, often carrying assault rifles, it is impossible for any police force to maintain complete security.

“As with any touristic travel, people let down their guards,” Bernier-Toth said. “It’s a big city with large pockets where you have underprivileged folks – where it’s a concern for people’s security.”

That concern persists, especially as more athletes finish their competitions and become tourists. Rio has put on successful Games thus far, for the most part, but the primary threat continues to come from people, not mosquitoes.

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