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The Problem With Laughing at Ryan Lochte

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We still don’t definitively know what happened early Sunday morning in Rio, when Ryan Lochte claims that he and three fellow Team USA swimmers were robbed: whether there was indeed a brutal theft, as Lochte continues to insist, or whether there was instead a “rowdy gas station confrontation” followed by an attempted cover-up, as Brazilian authorities now allege. From the latest reports, it appears that Lochte and three of his teammates — Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz, and Jack Conger — lied about at least some elements of an incident that took place.

The twists and turns of the controversy, which are recapped nicely here, are almost too bizarre to believe. One day after police detained Bentz and Conger at the Rio de Janiero airport, Brazilian authorities say that they have obtained video footage that proves the robbery didn’t occur, showing one or more of the U.S. swimmers tussling with a security guard and another breaking down a bathroom door at a gas station. The owner of that gas station said in an interview with Brazilian newspaper O Globo that the swimmers urinated on the walls, in spite of his pleas for them to use the bathroom. A report from Reuters on Thursday suggests that the swimmers were asked to pay for damages, prompting “a dispute with guards” and then a cash payment. Bentz and Conger have reportedly informed police that the original story was fabricated.

The sheer quantity of outrageous updates has been hard to follow, and those who have kept up have generally responded in one of two ways: by expressing surprise or by grabbing the popcorn and reveling in the comedic value of the whole thing. On Twitter, people have been digging up and retweeting the 32-year-old Lochte’s past boneheaded tweets. Existing memes were remixed; a new one was formed, with tongue-in-cheek claims of having footage from the gas station or the Rio airport.

But it’s not just Twitter users attempting to laugh the whole thing off. An International Olympic Committee spokesman came to Lochte’s defense on Thursday, essentially arguing that boys will be boys. “We have to understand that these kids came here to have fun,” said the IOC’s Mario Andrada, of chemistry-is-not-an-exact-science fame. “Let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you make decisions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.” Twelve years after his first appearance at the Summer Olympics, and three years after the debut of his short-lived reality show, What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, whose main thesis can be boiled down to neatly racked abdominal muscles, we’ve clung to the perception of Lochte as a lovable doofus, a harmless young (again: 32-year-old) man who means the world no trouble.

In a situation like this, that line of thinking is problematic. If the latest reports are true, Lochte and his teammates got drunk and committed what sounds an awful lot like property destruction and assault. If accurate, what came next was Lochte concocting some half-assed lies and then fleeing the country — a series of events that many have written off as classic Lochte. Lochte initially told NBC’s Billy Bush that his response to having a gun cocked and placed against his head was “whatever”; if his story is actually false (he has since claimed that the gun was merely pointed in his “general direction”), that should be more than just the fodder for jokes — it should be seen as deeply troubling.

Some are taking that stance. Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, said that the entire episode “has tapped into one of Brazilians’ biggest pet peeves — gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it.” For the weeks and months leading up to the games, many foreign publications painted a picture of Brazil as a den of crime and danger, and of Olympic planners and Rio officials as incompetent and corrupt. A high-profile robbery, then, would confirm some of the darkest suspicions about Brazil’s second-largest city — suspicions that seem as though they might in this case be baseless, fueling outrage among locals who are tired of this treatment.

Following the news cycle on Thursday, it’s hard not to wonder what would’ve happened if different American Olympic athletes — in particular, nonwhite athletes — had been involved in a similar situation. If this scandal didn’t center on the guy who once told The Hollywood Reporter he aspired to be like Kim Kardashian, and who strolls through bars in Gainesville, Florida, (where he trains) wearing a “YES IT’S ME” shirt, would this still be regarded as adolescent high jinks?

Probably not. And as Lochte inches closer to having to explain what really happened that night, we should think about whether we’re willing to shrug it all off with nothing more than some memes.