American swimmer Ryan Lochte might find himself in full agreement with Virginia Woolf's assertion that once night falls, "we are no longer quite ourselves". It's as good an explanation as any for what happened to the eternal frat boy of American swimming; one of the most decorated Olympians in history keen to burn off a little steam with Gunnar and Jack and a few younger members of the team after a week of being cooped up in the village, training like demons and winning more medals in the chlorine for Uncle Sam.
On Monday morning, unofficial reports began to circulate that Lochte had been held up and robbed at gunpoint at some point in the hours before dawn. The story was that his group had been travelling home from a social function, had their taxi stopped by what seemed to be a police patrol only to be robbed. Lochte apparently had the muzzle of a gun pressed against his forehead when he refused to lie down.
His apparent response to this threat on his life was magnificently banal: the international by-word for privileged, white indifference: “Whatever.”
Instinctive responses suggested the story was so odd and specific that it must be true. It did seem incredibly unlucky: like all competing athletes, Lochte had been living like a hermit in Rio. Just how unlucky can you be to get robbed on your first night in the city? And how strange that this should have happened to one of the more colourful members of the USA’s vast Olympic team.
In the days afterwards, Lochte had the good sense to get out of Rio, even as the ozone-sized holes in the Americans’ story became apparent. When he spoke about his experiences on a US television talk-show, he was already beginning to change the details of an event which ought to have been vivid and rigid in his mind.
The Rio police, whose scepticism and apparent indifference towards the power of IOC accreditations have been the big surprise of these Games, were already piecing the jigsaw together, and they believed that the emerging picture was a giant insult to Rio and to their reputation. They said to themselves: Eff this for a game of cowboys – except in Portuguese.
Inevitably, a video was produced which revealed, in grainy images, a more accurate version of what will go down in Olympic history as the Rio Gas Station Fiasco.
Lochte and his companions belonged to a generation of people raised watching episodes of Jackass and they behaved accordingly on this occasion: trashing a public bathroom while thrashed and then strolling back to their car even as workers at the station – including the armed security guard – shouted at them to stop.
After a stand-off, the athletes handed over, voluntarily or otherwise, an undisclosed sum of money and got back into their taxi before the police arrived. If they had kept schtum, the chances are that the incident would have survived only on the CCTV tape for a week.
But in a grave error of judgment and for reasons which still aren’t clear, they decided to concoct a fantastic version of events which shifted all responsibility from themselves and which leaned heavily on the stereotypical notion of Rio as dangerous and corrupt.
All kinds of questions abounded. What gave these preppy, sauntering Americans the belief that they could behave like this? What would the reaction have been like if the athletes had been African-American rather than appearing as if they had just walked off a lawn party at the Kennedy compound? Why did they make up this half-baked story of a robbery?
In Rio, local Brazilians rightly took a dim view of their behaviour. The entire event seemed like a perfect example of how their city was being treated by the Olympic circus in general.
This was a show which was costing them $10 billion and counting, and for that you didn’t even get free tickets. This in a time when Rio can’t afford to pay the wages of its police and medical staff, when schooling is being cut. When the world’s media, particularly in Europe and North America has presented Rio as polluted and corrupt and too shambolic to host these games. When visitors are disappointed and even appalled that the locals haven’t filled the arenas like the Londoners did four years ago. That the food stands suck. That stuff is over-priced. That the volunteers are quitting. That the fabled Rio party-mood has been glaringly absent.
They have had to absorb all of this, so maybe the sight of four young Americans trashing public-toilets and then just shrugging it off was too much to take. The Americans’ impromptu pit-stop became symbolic of the entire Olympic experience for the Brazilians: privileged brats descending on their city, trashing the joint and leaving them to pick up the bill.
It is unlikely any of the Americans would dream of behaving in that manner in their own country. So why in Rio? It betrayed, intentionally or otherwise, a sense of deep-down contempt for the place.
“Its traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country – with a language barrier – and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave,” Lochte said in what amounted to an apology he issued via Twitter, as if being confronted with Portuguese was as much of a threat as the presence of a firearm.
At some level, there is truth in that: having a gun pointed at you for what amounts to low-grade vandalism can’t be too pleasant. But then, police and firearms are hardly an unknown combination in contemporary America.
The whole thing will blow over. In so far as it will be remembered at all, the incident is a perfect representation of the fact that the Olympics debut visit to Brazil has been a stressful and uneasy meeting of cultures and traditions and expectations. There is a sense that by Sunday, everyone will be glad to be able to say that they got through it.