clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rio Olympics 2016: Ryan Lochte’s alleged robbery debacle, explained

Swimmer Ryan Lochte of the United States poses for a photo with his gold medal on the Today show set on Copacabana Beach on August 12, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro.
Swimmer Ryan Lochte of the United States poses for a photo with his gold medal on the Today show set on Copacabana Beach on August 12, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro.
Harry How/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Ryan Lochte, America’s majestic platinum-haired merman and 12-time Olympic medalist, has triggered the most confusing story to come out of the Rio Olympics. The tale does not involve doping, or Zika, or human body parts washing up on the sand of Copacabana Beach.


Lochte’s story is about getting mugged, lying about it, and causing an international commotion, a series of events that might have happened because, like a teen, Lochte didn’t want to tell his mother about what he did on Saturday night.

"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,’" Lochte told NBC in one of his early accounts of the incident.

Though Lochte was "whatever" about his mugging, Brazilian authorities were not. On Wednesday, Brazilian police removed two American swimmers from their flight home to the US, because they were allegedly involved in Lochte’s story. A third teammate who was said to be involved is also still in Rio. (Lochte is already back in the States.)

It's now become clear that Lochte fabricated the story, to cover up a fight he may have had with a security guard while trying to use a gas station restroom:

That’s where our story begins.

Ryan Lochte’s story doesn’t make much sense

Lochte’s robbery story, like perhaps many of the stories he’s accumulated in the 32 years he’s been alive, begins with a Saturday night party and ends on Sunday morning. According to Lochte, he and his swimming teammates Jack Conger, Gunnar Bentz, and James Feigen were returning to the Olympic Village early on Sunday, August 14, when they were mugged.

Lochte told NBC’s Billy Bush:

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 … 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.

Drunk Americans getting mugged isn’t too odd of a story. It happens both stateside and internationally.

And Rio is no stranger to crime. The US State Department warns travelers that Rio "continues to experience high incidences of crime, including armed robberies. Crime can happen at any place or time within Rio" and that "tourists are particularly vulnerable to street thefts and robberies in the evening and at night."

But surveillance video may tell a different story, at least according to Brazilian Judge Keyla Blanc de Cnop, who believes the men did not show any signs of having experienced violent crime.

The Daily Mail obtained security surveillance video that shows Lochte and his teammates returning to the Olympic Village after allegedly getting robbed. You see them go through a metal detector; they all remove various objects from their pockets and place them aside before being scanned:

The Daily Mail

At one point in the video, Lochte playfully boops Feigen on the head with what appears to be his credential:

The Daily Mail

"You can see the supposed victims arriving without signs of being physically or psychologically shaken, even joking amongst themselves," Blanc de Cnop said in a statement. The New York Times adds that Brazilian investigators have not found any evidence to support the swimmers’ claims, nor have they been able to find the taxicab driver whose cab was allegedly pulled over (the swimmers said they couldn’t remember the make or model of their taxi).

In light of these perceived inconsistencies, Judge Blanc de Cnop ordered the seizure of Lochte and his teammates’ passports, so they could be brought in for questioning to determine whether they filed a false police report. That’s what led to Conger and Bentz being pulled off their flight.

Meanwhile, Lochte — who was already back in the US by that point — has changed his story. On Wednesday, he told NBC’s Matt Lauer via phone that the robber who put the gun to his head (and "whatever") didn’t actually put the gun to his head but only pointed it in his direction. He also told Lauer he was surprised by the Brazilian authorities’ lack of thoroughness the first time he questioned him, and that he and his teammates were robbed at a gas station where they’d stopped to go to the bathroom, as opposed to their taxi being pulled over.

Why Brazilian officials care so much about Lochte’s story

The hubbub over Lochte potentially making up a weird story feels a little overblown — a lot out of nothing. If Lochte is lying but he and his friends didn’t get hurt and didn’t hurt anyone else in the process, then no harm, no foul, right?

The point where this story starts to involve judges and punishments and people being detained is the police report. Filing a false police report in Brazil (just like in the United States) comes with punishments. In Brazil, it is punishable by up to six months in jail, USA Today reported, and officials there are determining if that is what happened (hence the passports being revoked and people being detained).

But there’s another issue at play here, and it’s one of national and Olympic pride. The games have gone relatively smoothly compared with the horror stories that preceded them.

Leading up to the Olympics, there was lots of worry and scores of headlines about things going bad in Rio. Perhaps the most horrifying was the report of mutilated human body parts washing up on the shore near the Olympic beach volleyball venue. Meanwhile, an abundance of trash and contamination in Rio’s waters threatened to make athletes sick.

Lochte’s alleged robbery story adds to negative news coming out of Rio, and the story becomes that Rio officials can’t protect Olympic athletes, specifically a 2016 Olympic gold medalist, from being robbed at gunpoint.

That isn’t to say that everything has been running smoothly in Rio. The New York Times reports that an athlete faced an ordeal similar to the one that Lochte and his teammates described:

Shortly before the Olympics, Jason Lee, a jujitsu champion from New Zealand, said that he had been briefly kidnapped by police officers and forced to withdraw about $800 from his bank account.

There was, and still is, pressure on Rio officials and the International Olympic Committee to show that the country is doing everything in its power to ensure the safety and health of all the athletes. If Brazilian police and legal authorities didn’t follow up with Lochte’s story, the resulting narrative would be one of corruption or laziness.

This story is also very much about Brazilian officials trying to clear Rio’s name.

The "robbery" was cover for Lochte's own bad behavior

The most entertaining part of this story is trying to figure out why Lochte might have lied about his "whatever" brush with death. It seems like he isn’t telling the entire truth, and many people have suggested he’s trying to obscure what he was really doing on the night of the alleged robbery.

When news of the robbery broke, the first reports came from USA Today and Fox Sports Australia and cited Lochte’s mother, whose story about her son’s robbery preceded Lochte’s interview with NBC’s Bush by about two hours.

"I think they’re all shaken up. There were a few of them," Ileana Lochte told USA Today. "No, they were just, they just took their wallets and basically that was it."

Ileana’s interview also came after IOC director of communications Mark Adams said the robbery report was false. Adams said the United States Olympic Committee told him it spoke to Lochte and Lochte said the robbery story was not true.

Ryan then backtracked on that initial denial, and said he didn’t call police because he said he was afraid he would get into trouble.

The hilarious gist: This international commotion could have been spurred by a boy who didn’t want to tell his mother the real reason he was getting home late.

What doesn’t make sense is that Lochte already has a reputation as a massive partier — you would have to be headless to not know he likes to have fun. At the London Olympic Games in 2012, there was a report of Lochte swigging $800 tequila, with photos that show his eyes struggling to stay open and the muscles in his face relaxed to the point where they're seemingly down to his knees.

There was also his short-lived reality show,What Would Ryan Do, which felt like a slow-boil, five-episode audition for MTV’s now-defunct Jersey Shore.

What if everything we think we know about Ryan Lochte’s partying is a fraud? What if he and his teammates just like to stay in, watch Barefoot Contessa, and talk about Girls?

Or what if Ryan Lochte did something so silly that it sank below the already not-high expectations we have of him? According to ABC’s Matt Gutman, there is a video that allegedly shows Lochte fighting with security at the gas station:

On Thursday, The New York Times added more to this story. Citing an account from a Brazilian police official, it appears that video shows Lochte and his teammates damaging a bathroom door and then having an argument about it with a manager and security guard:

At the gas station, which is in Barra da Tijuca, on the route to the athletes’ village, the swimmers went to the bathroom. In the process, according to the account by investigators, damage was done to the bathroom door and a discussion ensued with the manager and a security guard.

Someone at the gas station called the police, but by the time a police car arrived at the scene, the swimmers were gone. Witnesses, including a person who offered to translate for the swimmers, said that they paid money to the manager before leaving.

And according to ESPN, Lochte's teammates have now told police that the robbery story was made up by Lochte:

On Friday, Lochte finally apologized. He said the episode was a misunderstanding — that a gun was pointed in his direction and he thought he was being mugged, and that he didn't realize that the security guard or manager were asking him to pay for the damaged door.

"Its' traumatic to be out late with your friends in aforeign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money," Lochte said in a statement. "I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself for that am sorry to my teammates, my fans, my fellow competitors, my sponsors, and hosts of the great event."

Ryan Lochte partying until the sun comes up is not shocking or embarrassing news. Neither is Ryan Lochte being stupid at a gas station. Both of those behaviors match his reputation. But Ryan Lochte making up a story about a robbery at gunpoint and not thinking about the international consequences it might have, potentially creating a situation more embarrassing and more serious than anything he actually did? That’s a different story altogether.

Sexist coverage steals the show at 2016 Olympics