RIO DE JANEIRO – Let me make one thing clear: Ryan Lochte set this whole ugly incident in motion and deserves every bit of the criticism and reprisals coming his way.
His lies are not the only problem in this saga, however.
For five days, Brazilian authorities devoted considerable time and resources to unraveling the various versions of Lochte’s story. Time and resources that, given the serious security concerns Rio has, could have been better spent.
How many people were killed since Sunday? How many more were victims of violent crimes? How much more progress did authorities make battling gangs and drug lords for control of the most dangerous favelas?
Criminals know that police are focused on the Olympics and the visitors who are here for the Games, and they’re taking advantage.
According to an app developed by Amnesty International to gather reports of gun violence, there were 59 shootings and 14 shooting deaths in the first week of the Games. That compares with an average of 3.5 shootings per day last month.
Yes, Lochte lied – over not much when you get down to it – and making false statements to the police is a crime in Brazil as it is in the United States. But the doggedness with which police pursued this had little to do with upholding the sanctity of police reports and everything to do with saving face.
“The apology should be to the Carioca people who saw their image stained by a fantasy story,” Fernando Veloso, head of the Rio civil police, said during a news conference to discuss details about the case.
There you have it. Already battered by months of criticism – polluted water! Zika! lawlessness! disorganization! – Rio police were incensed by the incident and Lochte’s claim that someone posing as an officer was involved in it. By God, he and his fellow swimmers were going to pay for sullying the reputation of the police, the good people of Rio and the noble country of Brazil.
The latter two definitely deserve an apology.
Police acknowledged Thursday that, should any of the four be found guilty of anything, be it perjury or vandalism, they would be looking at community service and fines. Yet the investigation rose to the level of such importance that a Brazilian judge ordered Lochte and teammate Jimmy Feigen to surrender their passports and not leave the country.
Two others, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger, were pulled off a plane to compel them to talk with investigators, even though they weren’t named in the judge’s order.
This was not a capital offense. But the police equated Lochte’s story to character assassination.
“These are important public figures who influence other people,” Veloso said.
It's worth noting that other Olympic athletes actually have been robbed or had their property stolen. Didn't hear an update on those cases today.
If only the police cared as much about the harm done to the citizens of Rio every single day. And some serious offenses don't get near the investigative attention the U.S. swimmers did, depending on who is pulling the trigger.
According to Human Rights Watch, one-fifth of the homicides in the city of Rio last year were police killings. More than 8,000 people in the state of Rio de Janeiro have been killed by police in the past decade, including at least 645 last year.
“Despite the promised legacy of a safe city for hosting the Olympic Games, killings by the police have been steadily increasing over the past few years in Rio,” Atila Roque, executive director of Amnesty International Brazil, said earlier this year.
“Until now, killings by police have for the most part not been investigated.”
Again, there is no excuse for what Lochte did. And given what apparently happened – one of the swimmers damaged a mirror and a soap dispenser – his worst offense was stupidity. Had he paid for the damages, owned up to what he did with U.S. Olympic Committee officials and apologized for being an ugly American, everyone would have moved on days ago, if we ever even heard about it.
But Rio officials have little claim to the moral high ground in this case.
Lochte and his teammates didn’t go to police, police went to them. Tired of being the world’s punching bag, Lochte's fabrication gift-wrapped an opportunity for them to play the victim for a change.
It's a moment in time that will pass quickly. Eight thousand dead at the hands of law enforcement? That's hard to forget.