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Niyo: Swimmers’ tale appropriate finish for Olympics

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Swimmer Ryan Lochte and three teammates were not robbed, Brazillian police say.

Rio de Janeiro — Nobody’s getting away clean now.

Not after Ryan Lochte’s story of armed robbery grew legs and the 12-time Olympic medalist skedaddled, leaving his teammates to take the perp walk following a potty break that turned into an international incident.

And not as these Rio Olympics end the way they began. Disingenuously, at best, with sensational headlines about the games important people play once again threatening to overshadow the Games themselves.

That it began with outrage over Russian doping and ends with Americans being dopes is probably fitting, in a way. So is the notion a sensationalized story about a U.S. star athlete getting robbed with a loaded gun pointed at his head would turn out to be a wild embellishment, if not an outright fabrication.

That, of course, is a big reason why this whole saga involving Lochte and three U.S. swimmers is such a big deal in Rio, with a crush of news cameras chasing shamed athletes around town, police officials happily leaking incriminating videos of, well, you know … and Olympic officials conveniently ducking for cover.

Brazilians love their telenovelas, and this soap opera certainly has played out like one, as Lochte and teammate James Feigen were facing possible indictment for falsely reporting of a crime, according to O Globo, a Brazilian newspaper.

But the locals aren’t fond of the way they’re been portrayed by the international media the last several months. Or the way they’ve been played by the Olympics, in many respects. And they’re not going to sit idly by while one more lie is cast about them, no matter how close to the truth it rings.

A “confusão” is what one police official called it. A confusion. Lochte’s attorney, meanwhile, called it a circus, which is easy for him to say since his client was safely in U.S. jurisdiction, while Lochte’s three U.S. teammates were stuck in Rio being interrogated.

“Do you see a clown nose on my face right now?” Rio police chief Fernando Veloso responded, speaking in Portuguese at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

Lochte apologizes for not being more candid

Locals unhappy about image

This is hardly the first time ugly Americans have reared their heads like this at an Olympics. There were the NHL players trashing their apartments at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and two swimmers who decided to steal a $1,000 marble sculpture from a hotel in Seoul in ’88. Heck, there was even Tonya Harding.

But this time it was a different cost, and a different victim.

“Cariocas,” Veloso said, using the colloquial term for locals in Rio, “have seen the image of their city stained by a fantasy.”

So, no, they’re not happy about this, and understandably so. The police had enough problems in this crime-ridden city of 6 million even before the Olympics coming to town. And certainly without high-profile athletes allegedly concocting elaborate stories — the kind that only serve to amplify distrust in public safety and discourage tourism and foreign investment — to cover up their own petty crimes and drunken stupidity.

If you’ll recall, before the Olympics, there were widespread reports in the Opening Ceremony the “Girl From Ipanema” scene would include Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen getting robbed on stage as part of the act. Creative director Fernando Meirelles later explained it was a misunderstanding with a planned skit involving a young man trying to snap a selfie with Bundchen. “I’m not that clueless,” Mareilles told the Washington Post.

Apparently, the same can’t be said for Lochte, who has a history of attention-seeking antics and a reputation for being a bit of a meathead, in addition to owning more Olympic medals than any swimmer not named Michael Phelps.

And while the exact details of this incident are still being pieced together by local authorities — and maybe some yet that’ll favor Lochte’s version of events — it’s clear the swimmers’ initial story about being pulled over in a taxi and robbed by men posing as police was a lie. Not a very good one, at that, as conflicting stories, messed-up timelines and surveillance cameras quickly left it in tatters. (As NBC’s Billy Bush, who first interviewed Lochte about the alleged robbery, noted, “He's not the kind of guy who could weave a brilliant tale.”)

American Olympic swimmers Gunnar Bentz, left, and Jack Conger leave a police station in the Leblon neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday. The two were taken off their flight from Brazil to the U.S. on Wednesday by local authorities amid an investigation into a reported robbery targeting Ryan Lochte and his teammates. A Brazilian police officer told The Associated Press that Lochte fabricated a story about being robbed at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro.

Lochte Mess Monster

But amid all the “confusão,” don’t confuse the message of Mario Andrada, chief spokesman for Rio’s organizing committee, at Thursday’s daily news briefing, which has become a sort of “Breakfast with Baghdad Bob” affair at these Olympics.

Each morning, International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams, with often-colorful help from Andrada, fields a laundry list of questions about problems and finds a way to dismiss or deflect them all.

Empty seats? What empty seats? Green water? It looks blue to us. And so on.

Thursday, it was the third consecutive day of the Lochte Mess Monster, and after a few inquiries, Andrada smiled when asked, in light of new developments, if he regretted apologizing earlier to the American athletes after their traumatic robbery scare.

“You know, let’s give these kids a break,” Andrada said. “Sometimes you take actions that you later regret. They are magnificent athletes. Lochte is one of the best swimmers of all time. They had fun, they made a mistake, it’s part of life, life goes on.”

These Olympics will, too, with one final weekend of competition left. Usain Bolt chasing more history. The U.S. adding to its insurmountable lead in the medal count. And most important to the people in Rio, Brazil’s soccer team with a chance at redemption Saturday, facing Germany — the country that embarrassed the host nation in that World Cup semifinal here in 2014 — for the gold medal at the famed Maracana football stadium.

Hard to be sure of anything

But again, don’t let all that action obscure the inaction behind the scenes, from the empty promises about pollution cleanup in Rio to the claims of a lasting Olympic legacy for the cariocas that’ll instead just line the pockets of the rich.

The IOC balked at suspending the Russian delegation despite overwhelming evidence of a state-sponsored doping program in that country, then scolded other athletes for complaining about suspected — or convicted — drug cheats from Russia winning medals in Rio.

In the midst of an economic recession in Brazil, they’ve blamed the general public for flagging attendance, yet Tuesday, Brazilian authorities arrested Ireland’s Pat Hickey, a member of the IOC’s executive committee, with forming a cartel in an Olympic ticket-scalping scheme involving upwards of $3 million.

“Let’s look to the future and see what happens,” Adams shrugged Thursday. “But I’m sure when and if he’s cleared you will report that he was fully cleared and the IOC was exonerated.”

Truth is, no one is sure about much of anything at the Olympics anymore. What’s real and what’s fake? Who’s cheating and who’s not?

But that’s the problem with spreading a lie, I suppose. In the end, it leaves everyone involved feeling dirty.

These Olympics know that feeling all too well.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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