Ryan Lochte by Chan-Fan. Story photo by Dave Zirin.
No U.S. swimmer, save Michael Phelps, has ever won more medals than Ryan Lochte. This 2016 Olympic season, however, Lochte is known for something far from the glory of Rio's off-green pool.
The gold medal legend said he was held up along with three other swimmers at gunpoint in a posh Rio neighborhood.
"We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a police badge, no lights, no nothing—just a police badge and they pulled us over," Lochte told NBC.
"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."
This act of violence was disturbing enough. But it was compounded by the response from the International Olympic Committee. First, IOC director of communications Mark Adams said that the story was “absolutely not true.” After it was eventually confirmed, Brazil’s Olympic officials blamed Lochte and his friends, effectively saying that they had "asked for it" by going out so late at night, even though the Olympians were only traveling from a French hospitality house back to Olympic village in a cab. Brazil’s sports minister actually chastised Lochte for being "outside competition location at inappropriate time.” What they are saying, as Scottish reporter Andrew Downie tweeted, was that “Basically, the city isn't safe for residents.”
Having just returned from Rio, I believe that the most disturbing effect of this incident is that it will further isolate athletes, keeping them in the heavily fortified Olympic village and preventing them from engaging with one of the great cities on Earth.
Yes, Rio is a dangerous city. But only by actually getting out of the Olympic bubble can the thousands of foreign guests begin to understand it. Rio holds hazards without question: danger dances openly among its unique rhythms, sights, and sounds. It also suffers from a deficit of democracy, deep inequality and a brutal police force. It is these very features, I would argue, that made it so attractive to the International Olympic Committee in the first place. Rio is defined by profound economic inequality and its economic divisions are enforced by a police department notorious throughout the world. It is so frustrating to read analysis of Brazil as a “developing country” as if that explains its problems. The issue is not development. Go to the wealthy neighborhoods of Ipanema or the malls of Barra and you can see that the problem is inequality and the coexistence of poverty and oligarchy.
This oligarchical system explains how Rio can be one of the wealthiest cities in the world but also a place where teachers are attempting to educate students in classrooms with a 50-to-1 student-teacher ratio. It is a place where conspicuous wealth is all around but also where bankrupt hospitals have been accused of hoarding medication and ambulances for out of town tourists. It is a place where shopping centers glimmer with excess while hunger is a daily reality in the shadows of high-end stores. It is a city where in the past year police have murdered more residents than the entire U.S. police force.
It is a place where the governor of the state of Rio, Francisco Dornelles could declare “a state of public calamity" over budget shortfalls in Rio but still manage to squirrel away the last remaining public funds to boost security for the Olympic torch as it wound its way toward the world-famous Maracanã Stadium.
This is why the community, Vila Autodromo, which Olympic displacement has winnowed from 650 families to just twenty-four, hung signs declaring to those attending that these were the Calamity Olympics.
If there was one moment that made this perfectly clear for me it was when I was spending time at Vila Autodromo, which sits just a five-minute walk from where I cheered myself hoarse watching fencing and basketball. People in Vila celebrated the fact that they could not be defeated despite the best efforts of Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes and Brazil’s Olympic Committee.
One resident Maria de la Penha said to me, “We have been beaten. We have been knocked down. But we are still here and that is something they cannot take away.”
The crime perpetrated against Ryan Lochte and his friends is awful. But it is symptomatic of these other kinds of crimes: the crimes of poverty, debt, displacement, police violence, and hyper-militarization that the poor of Rio suffer through on a daily basis. One problem will never be solved without addressing the other, and as glorious as the Olympics are, they have aggravated these problems. The games have created a situation that will be worse after the international media has packed up its cameras and returned home.
Dave Zirin is author of the Book Brazil's Dance With The Devil: The World Cup. The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy