Earth & Conservation

The Curious Case of Ryan Lochte's 'Robbery'

Celebrated Olympian Ryan Lochte's claim of being robbed at gunpoint fits a pattern of false reports.

Photo: Ryan Lochte poses with his gold medal after the men's 4x200m freestyle relay final in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters When Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte -- proud owner of six gold medals and a dozen medals overall -- was reportedly robbed last week along with several companions, it came as a shock.

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According to The Los Angeles Times:

"Lochte said the foursome grabbed a taxi to head back to the Olympic village and within minutes their night out turned dangerous as they were stopped and robbed by men flashing police badges. 'They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground -- they got down on the ground,' Lochte told NBC News. '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.'"

With news of the violent assault, "the 2016 Olympic Games had changed dramatically," USA Today reported. "A week of conversation about green pool water and lost buses seemed almost quaint compared to what was now going to come. Serious concern for the thousands of athletes, their events now complete, who are going to tour and celebrate in a city of 6.5 million in which indiscriminate street crime is the stuff of legend. While sports go on and medals are being won, these are now a Games on edge."

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But in the following days the swimmers changed their story, giving several somewhat different versions of what happened. There was even a question that it happened at all: An Olympic Committee spokesman claimed during a press conference that the reports of Lochte's robbery were "absolutely not true" but then later reversed himself. As concern spread and the Rio police struggled to explain how a world-famous athlete could have been a victim of street crime, investigations began ... and began to raise questions.

According to The New York Times:

"The police ... acknowledged that a security guard had brandished a gun after one or more of the swimmers vandalized a gas station bathroom. Fernando Veloso, the Civil Police chief, said at a news conference that 'there was no robbery in the way it was reported by the athletes,' and 'they were not the victim of the criminal act they described.' Mr. Lochte originally claimed that men posing as police officers had pulled over their taxi and that an assailant had put a cocked gun to his forehead before taking his money. He later altered his account, saying the taxi stopped at a gas station so they could use the bathroom."

Slate summarized the situation:

"Based on the current reports coming out of Brazil, including surveillance footage and eyewitness testimony, it appears as though Lochte and the other U.S. swimmers got in a drunken conflict with some employees at a gas station, instigated when the swimmers broke down the door of a locked bathroom." Police were called but the swimmers had already left, having paid the station manager for the damage.

Whether any of Ryan Lochte's account was truthful remains to be seen, but many news outlets are branding the story a hoax, and it fits a pattern of previous false reports. Lochte's dramatic description of the attack raised some eyebrows, portraying himself as heroic and brave in the face of danger and refusing to get on the ground with his fellow swimmers until a cocked gun was put to his temple.

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Sometimes people who falsely report crimes really are victims -- of crimes they are embarrassed to admit to being victims of. That's what happened in 2004 when actor Kevin Spacey reported that he'd been the victim of a mugging and robbery while walking his dog in a park in London. Spacey told police that a stranger assaulted him and stole his cell phone. Spacey later admitted that he had in fact been conned; a teenager asked to borrow his cell phone and Spacey willingly handed it over before the scamp ran away with it.

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In 2011, New York City meteorologist Heidi Jones told police that a man had stalked and assaulted her while she jogged in Central Park. Police investigated the matter and arrested a suspect before Jones -- a contributor to Good Morning America -- admitted that she faked the attack: "I made it up for attention."

If Lochte and his companions did fabricate the attack, the motive would seem to have been to distract from possible negative publicity for vandalism.

Often a person making a false report does not give police or investigators enough of a description or other identifying information to make an arrest. They may give only vague details, or even suggest that looking for their attacker is pointless because he or she is long gone. Not only does the person making the false report know that their attacker doesn't really exist, but they want the focus and attention to be on them and the experience they (allegedly) endured. Their goal, after all, isn't to wrongly implicate an innocent person.

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In interviews Lochte and another swimmer offered police very little information about their attack: They claimed they didn't know where the robbery happened, or at what time. Nor could they recall the type or color of taxi they were in or other identifying details. Lochte's defenders chalked such discrepancies up to them being traumatized by the robbery and/or their intoxicated state.

Furthermore those who make false reports are often reluctant to make them public in the first place. They often begin with a person telling a friend or relative about the alleged incident, who then shares it with others and soon the story snowballs as more and more news outlets pick up the story until finally the person is forced to either admit it didn't happen or go on the record and make a brief statement hoping to put an end to the story.

Indeed this is what happened in Lochte's case; he initially didn't mention the incident. As a Deadspin story noted, "we never would have heard a word about this if Ryan Lochte hadn't told his mother. Lochte said they didn't initially report the robbery 'because we were afraid we'd get in trouble,' and it was only after Lochte's mother talked to the media that the IOC, USOC, and police got involved."

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False reports often fit neatly into pre-existing stereotypes and larger narratives, which makes people all the more ready to accept them. For example in November 2013, a New Jersey waitress made national news when she claimed she was left a hate-filled, anti-gay note instead of a tip, presumably by a customer who identified her as a lesbian. When the original sales receipt was produced and had no such vile message, investigators concluded that the woman had lied and she was fired.

Anti-gay harassment does of course occur, and Rio de Janeiro is in fact notorious for its street crime. But that doesn't mean that every claimed incident actually happened, and false victims make their story credible by hewing closely to popular assumptions.

Brazilian authorities, stung by criticism of their city's crime and pollution problems, ordered the swimmers to stay in the country and surrender their passports. Lochte had already left the country, though two other swimmers were removed from a plane before they could depart. They returned to the United States Friday morning after meeting with a judge and prosecutors and after one of the swimmers, Jimmy Feigen, agreed to pay 35,000 reals, or about $10,800, to a Brazilian charity as part of a deal to avoid prosecution, ABC News reported.

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Outrage that Lochte and the other swimmers may have fabricated an attack is especially acute among Brazilians who feel snubbed and disrespected by other prominent American athletes. Celebrated women's soccer goalie Hope Solo, for example, originally suggested she might not compete over fears that Brazil was dangerous because of the Zika virus. She later relented but then mocked Brazil with a series of tweets about Zika, which led to her being booed on the field and having "Zika!" shouted at her by the fans; it got so bad that Slate.com recently called her the "Villain of the Rio Olympics."

Depending on how the Brazilian police's investigation shakes out, Lochte may soon replace Solo for that ignominious title.