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RIO DE JANEIRO – Ryan Lochte spoke to NBC again about the infamous Sunday morning trip home from a night of partying, acknowledging that his original, and now disputed, tale of a harrowing, gun-to-the-forehead robbery was “over-exaggerated,” and that he now takes “full responsibility” for the fallout that has overwhelmed the Olympics here.
Lochte’s claim to police (and repeatedly to the media) that he and three fellow American swimmers were pulled out of a taxi at gunpoint and robbed by men pretending to be police created an international incident.
Rio police immediately doubted his story because valuables such as jewelry and cellphones weren’t taken and details were both shaky and shifting. By Wednesday, as inconsistencies piled up, a judge ordered the seizure of Lochte’s and teammate Jimmy Feigen’s passports. Two other American swimmers, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz, were pulled off an about-to-depart plane even though they were just considered witnesses.
Conger and Bentz met with police Thursday in the midst of a media circus. Under Brazilian law, Feigen, who backed Lochte’s original tale to police, was charged $10,800 U.S. (payable to a Brazilian charity) to settle the issue and thus be allowed to leave. Lochte, who was safely back in the States when the fallout hit, suffered no consequences.
The false claim struck a nerve in Brazil, which has tired of negative international attention about its problems during the Olympics. There is also this basic human emotion: No one wants someone from another place to tell them how terrible their hometown is. Brazilians routinely protest and politic for better services but aren’t keen on hearing embellished versions of their country from foreigners.
Piling on Lochte and the swimmers predictably became a political gold mine here. It is one reason why after the incident became public, but before the full firestorm, the U.S. State Department instructed the swimmers to remain quiet and low key until they left Brazil.
Three of them obeyed.
The 32-year-old reality star couldn’t contain himself, though. His inability to stop talking … doubling and tripling down on his story, mostly to the vapid-Hollywood-publicity media such as “Access Hollywood” and TMZ added fuel to the fire.
Even as he was back in the States and his friends were being put through a pressure cooker, Lochte continued to antagonize the situation – and the Rio police – rather than just being quiet. The more he said, the worse everything got.
“I over-exaggerated that story,” Lochte told NBC. “And if I had never done that, we wouldn’t be in this mess. … None of this would have happened. And it was my immature behavior.”
In the latest interview, Lochte even began to understand (or at least consider) the concept that by Brazilian standards, the group wasn’t even robbed or extorted.
“Whether you call it a robbery, whether you call it extortion, or us paying just for the damages, like, we don’t know,” Lochte told NBC. “All we know is that there was a gun pointed in our direction and we were demanded to give money.”
Rio police, a local man who served as a translator and statements from Conger and Bentz, describe a far different event, something more in line with you-broke-it, you-bought-it, Rio-style.
After the group used some bushes behind the station to relieve themselves, Lochte committed some minor vandalism of the station. That led security to demand the Americans leave the taxi and pay up before leaving. With the help of a man who was there getting gas and served as translator, the Americans gave about $50 for repayment of damages and understood what was happening. Lochte didn’t even hand over any of his money; two others did.
In Rio, where police are overwhelmed with more pressing crimes, this isn’t uncommon, locals say. It’s why there are armed guards at nearly every business, particularly a busy gas station on the side of a major road. The entire incident took place in plain view of other customers, security cameras and passing cars at an established business, hardly a back-alley shake down. The swimmers even allowed a stranger to serve to help translate during the settlement – which isn’t exactly how “robberies” work.
Local police chief Fernando Veloso shrugged off the entire incident at the gas station, declaring that neither the public urination nor the vandalism was considered a big deal because restitution was made and it was worked out between the parties.
“This kind of crime will not lead to their arrest,” Veloso said.
Rio is an aggressive and violent city. While such actions might seem extreme or even criminal in the United States, here disputes are commonly worked out in real time between the parties involved. This isn’t America. Acting like it is America or solely applying American standards to it is foolish and fruitless.
“There was no aggression,” Fernando Deluz, a disk jockey coming home from working a party who served as an impromptu translator told the Associated Press. He disputed that the drawn guns were ever even pointed at the Americans, not that it wouldn’t have still been unnerving. “Pointing a gun at them? Never. There was nothing like that.”
Once the Americans paid, they hailed another cab and left. It would have been nothing but a wild war story from a night of Olympic partying if Lochte hadn’t started spinning the tale wilder and wilder, making himself look more and more like a hero. His repeated interviews just made it worse.
“What I’m trying to get at is the first version of the story you told, Ryan, was much more about the mean streets of Rio,” Matt Lauer said in the latest interview. “And the version we’re hearing now is much more about a negotiated settlement to cover up some dumb behavior.”
“And that’s why I am taking full responsibility for it,” Lochte said.
It is possible this story – a story about nothing – may finally be close to ending.