Starring now in Brazil's theater of the absurd: Ryan Lochte's one-act play of stupidity

Dan WetzelColumnist

Medal count | Olympic schedule | Olympic news

RIO DE JANEIRO — The crowd of media in and around a police precinct here numbered in the hundreds – a massive, outrageous throng complete with cameras and microphones and satellite trucks parked on curbs. The small station was not far from Ipanema Beach, with Christ the Redeemer looking down from above, a Rio tableau the Olympics never could have predicted.

It’s called the Rio Tourist Police and inside were a couple of tourists (American swimmers Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger) and a whole lot of police (trying to ascertain whether they were or were not really robbed, as their buddy Ryan Lochte claimed, after a recent night of partying).

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Eventually a news conference was called, and in an effort to handle even half the horde, the gathering was moved across the street to the lobby of a theater, the Oi Casa Grande. It’s hosted Shakespeare in the past, although this was its first performance of “Much Ado About Nothing,” male lead played by a hair-dyed, 32-year-old pool boy/party boy.

“Americans,” the theater manager said, laughing at her overrun lobby, laughing at the absurdity of it all. “Always great stories. Why you’re so good at the movies.”

Ryan Lochte left Rio with a gold medal and a tattered reputation. (Getty)
Ryan Lochte left Rio with a gold medal and a tattered reputation. (Getty)

Yeah, well, this one was on par with Adam Sandler’s recent efforts, a humorless tale of drunken debauchery and destruction based on unfathomable stupidity. 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.

Ryan Lochte is as dense as dense gets. He’s so wrapped up in the spectacle of self-promotion and Hollywood reality-television publicity that even as authorities here were laying into his buddies inside that police station on Thursday, trying to determine how miserable to make everyone’s life, Lochte was back in the States giving an interview to TMZ, egging the cops on, claiming they were tampering with evidence or something.

Yeah, that’s one way to get everyone down here to chill, bro.

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This came on the heels of two interviews, one with Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” fame, the other with Matt Lauer of the “Today Show” where Lochte spun an absurd and inconsistent tale of his crew riding home in a taxi from a night of righteous boozing and getting pulled over (or not) by fake police and having a cocked gun pressed against his forehead (or not) and sneering at the robbers like a tough guy (or not) and, of course, being robbed (but not for their cell phones or jewelry).

The appearance with Bush, with the waves of Ipanema crashing in the background, came moments after The New York Times reported that Lochte and the others were lectured by officials from the State Department specifically about the need to keep a low profile before leaving Brazil.

Good advice didn’t matter to Lochte, not with national television waiting for him. In one peroxide, out the other.

Once suspicious, the cops are now convinced of the lie. The local police chief, Fernando Veloso, said there were two women in a separate taxi, and theorized the mugging story was a way to explain some lost hours to their girlfriends.

“Their claim that they are a victim of an assault or robbery or any kind of violence is not true,” Veloso said.

Lochte is still trying to claim otherwise, but he’s mostly down to being too drunk to remember it all correctly or how, after vandalizing a gas station bathroom, he got confused when a security guard pulled out a gun to get them to pay for damages – or since the American swimmers did, indeed, dole out about $50 for repairs it actually was extortion or robbery or something. He says to ignore his shifting stories. He’s telling it true this time.

“A gun was pointed at the swimmers and they were forced to get out of their cab and give up their money,” said Lochte’s lawyer, Jeffrey Ostrow, in a statement to ABC News Thursday. “No matter what happened at that gas station, the swimmers were robbed by people with a gun appearing to be law enforcement. No matter what country you are in that is robbery and robbery is a crime.”

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Yeah, well, whatever it was, Lochte and his crew left safe and sound, fortunate police didn’t investigate an altercation and property damage because sadly, that isn’t deemed a priority here. These are the streets of Rio, not a cul-de-sac in Florida. You can’t wait for the police to show up, especially when the perpetrators are getting back in their taxi to leave. Regardless, the story should have died then, brought up at reunions as a $50 war story of a night gone wild.

Instead, Lochte had to tell the media, portraying himself as the fearless leader who, while the other swimmers cowered on the ground, felt the barrel of a gun to his head and declared, “whatever.” He now acknowledges this wasn’t true.

“The behavior of these athletes is not acceptable, nor does it represent the values of Team USA or the conduct of the vast majority of its members,” the United States Olympic Committee said in a statement that agreed with the police findings. “We apologize to our hosts in Rio and the people of Brazil.”

Reporters mob a car carrying American swimmers Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz. (Reuters)
Reporters mob a car carrying American swimmers Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz. (Reuters)

Again, you practically can’t get arrested in Rio. Not for something small. Pickpockets and street scammers are everywhere. Prostitutes stand on corners in open view. People walk through the streets drinking huge beers. If there is a traffic law, no one appears aware of it. Entire favelas are under control of drug gangs. Kidnappings, shootouts and murders are what the cops worry about.

Vandalism and public urination at the gas station? Veloso the police chief said this was of no concern because it wasn’t a big deal and restitution was made privately.

“This kind of crime will not lead to their arrest,” Veloso said.

No one cares. On Copacabana Beach the other day, an enterprising entrepreneur carried a bong along the sidewalk selling single hits. There were about 100 police patrolling the place, unconcerned.

Having the cops this mad at you for the Brazilian equivalent of a misdemeanor is like going to a Nevada brothel and getting cited for poor table manners.

Lochte is a gold medal clown, though. He insulted the Brazilians, and these are people who are tired of being insulted.

Then, rather than just saying it to the media, he told the police the same tales. Teammate Jimmy Feigen did at least some of the same, while Bentz and Conger remained silent. It’s why those two were finally allowed to leave the country Thursday night.

Maybe that isn’t a good reason to unleash the full force of the Brazilian government, ordering the seizure of Lochte’s and Feigen’s passports (Lochte was gone by then) and hauling Bentz and Conger off a plane that was about to depart.

But that’s, predictably, what happened. That’s why the swimmers were told to by the State Department to keep things quiet.

Forget trying to argue the legality of all of this through an American perspective. This isn’t America. A security guard pulling a gun at a gas station might sound crazy in the States. It isn’t here.

No one might even be prosecuted. Even if they are, punishment is a fine. This was all about Ryan Lochte refusing to shut up, boxing everyone into a corner that should never have existed.

Reporters look at the bathroom the Americans allegedly damaged. (Reuters)
Reporters look at the bathroom the Americans allegedly damaged. (Reuters)

In Brazil they know this doesn’t pass for law and order. This is about politics and public relations, trying to negate negative global headlines that scare away businessmen and tourists.

And the locals love it. By the time Bentz and Conger left the police station there were crowds there to shout at them. It’s a fruitless anger, wasting energy on symbolic villains rather than demanding better safety and security from the government, but it doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t real.

It especially played well to a stressed and overworked police department that has mostly done excellent work during these Games. “I am so angry at the lie of the American swimming team,” one officer told Yahoo Sports on Thursday.

All this for that. All that for this.

The fact Lochte’s three buddies were stuck dealing with uncertain departures and angry authorities, with reporters by the hundreds climbing over each other for a good camera angle on the perp walk? Hey, who cares about them? Harvey from TMZ is the phone.

“The athletes should apologize for what they have done to the people of Rio,” said Veloso at the news conference of the absurd.

Now it was the police chief being naive. There in that crowded theater lobby a Shakespearean drama was playing out with a modern American twist. “What would Ryan Lochte do?” his short-lived reality show was called.

It remains a question for the ages.

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