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The World Is Watching: Ryan Lochte and the Confusion of Constant Coverage

Getty Images
Getty Images

On Saturday, Ryan Lochte kicked it with snowboarder Shaun White, got together with some teammates, and Snapchatted from a party at France’s hospitality house in Rio. What happened next was, for several hours early Sunday morning, the subject of much uncertainty.

Reports surfaced that Lochte had been robbed at gunpoint. His mother spoke with Fox Sports Australia and described a phone call from her shaken son. Random details emerged: Lochte had been at a party with Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira; Lochte had been with others in a cab that stopped for gas. An IOC spokesman, citing the USOC and Lochte himself, denied that any of it was true. Eventually Lochte himself spoke with NBC’s Billy Bush to confirm that all of it was.

According to Lochte, he and U.S. swimming teammates Gunnar Bentz, Jimmy Feigen, and Jack Conger had been at a party at Club France. (Pereira and his wife were there as well, but left earlier than the U.S. swimmers.) Lochte and his teammates took a taxi home in the wee hours, and the vehicle was pulled over. “These guys came out with a badge, a police badge, no lights, no nothing, just a police badge,” Lochte told Bush, “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.”

In light of recent events in Rio, the incident wasn’t entirely surprising. Two Australian rowing coaches and a Portuguese official were held up this past week. A judo medalist was punched in the face on a beach after a friend’s phone was stolen. A Brazilian national security officer was fatally shot in a slum. Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski tweeted that he’d been scared off by bad taxi stories and had been trying to avoid cabs at all costs. But even if it was, in a small and silly way, almost cheering to learn that Ryan Lochte reacts to a stickup exactly as you might dream he would, it was alarming to hear about anyone, Olympic athletes or otherwise, being robbed by thieves disguised as police. Adding to the Sunday morning intrigue was the way the story broke, with false denials from the IOC, interviews with Ileana Lochte, and vaguely assigned blame all around.

The reports were “not true — + that’s from athlete’s mouth via USOC,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters in Rio, in the most unfortunate Olympics quip since “chemistry is not an exact science.” Considering that Lochte’s mother had gone on record as saying otherwise, the IOC statement raised eyebrows. For those who have been critical of the organization’s every move, it was one more mistake to add to a long list. “This has been the most difficult games we have ever encountered,” IOC vice president John Coates admitted to the BBC, according to a recent AP article that outlined the litany of things that have gone wrong in Rio, from murky waters to broken promises. Having one of the world’s most famous Olympic athletes confronted, literally head-on, by the brutal Rio underworld that everyone wants not to exist was a nightmare scenario for the powers that be.

It’s tough not to cynically wonder if there was a failed attempt to sweep this all under the rug. It’s most likely, though, that a botched game of sports-federation Telephone under fast-moving circumstances is what created the misdirection. But regardless, the incident, in addition to being a reminder that even the world’s top athletes need to take safety precautions, was an example of how quick and connected, for better and for worse, the Olympics have become.

The world is watching, people like to say during the Olympics, one of those phrases filed alongside there’s that gold medal smile and it all comes down to this. It does double duty as a celebration of global competition (we are all in this together) and a motivational tool (all eyes are on you). But lately, as Olympics coverage churns around the clock and more and more attention is paid not just to the games but to the real world surrounding them, the expression has almost felt more like a warning.

American swimmer Lilly King said she didn’t know, when she first mocked Russia’s Yulia Efimova while waiting for her swim, that she was being filmed. (The call-room footage has been some of Rio’s best, to be clear, also gifting us Phelps Face.) During the golf tournament, the crowd was repeatedly chastised to put down their phones. “Put the cameras down!” an official hollered while gold medalist Justin Rose was set to tee off on one of his final holes. “Stop taking pictures for one minute!” The Daily Beast disappeared a remarkably unethical post in which a journalist catfished athletes on Grindr. Gabby Douglas’s every facial tic was examined as if it were Zapruder footage.

And while Lochte’s social media accounts didn’t confirm or deny the rumors about his attack, they gave anyone who was curious an instant window into the rest of his Saturday night: the kicking it with White, the clubbing it with France. All of these inside glimpses have become normal.

With some exceptions (like the Daily Beast article) there’s nothing wrong, per se, with this sort of immersive, round-the-clock coverage, much of which is athlete-generated. It has fixed a light on many of the difficult contradictions inherent to the Olympics — the gestures toward global harmony and equal playing fields that ignore the scale of suffering and financial hardship that the games often leave in their wake — and it has enhanced the visibility of athletes who are otherwise disproportionately overlooked. But it also creates odd situations, like the one surrounding Lochte, where the Olympics machine seems — unlike all of its athletes — lumbering and slow to react. Often, it is these athletes who provide the cover to and the distraction from the unsavory parts of the Olympic Games. When those athletes become characters in that other story, though, it’s much harder to ignore.