What's gold doesn't necessarily glitter.

Photographer: Harry How/Getty Images

Ugly Americans Win Gold in Rio

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Sports fans boo for many reasons. Brazilians, maybe more than most. Jeers, catcalls and heckling have been staples of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and the habit has stirred a storm of comment and consternation.

The barrage from the bleachers has brought a Russian swimmer to tears, unnerved a French pole vaulter and targeted a Vietnamese marksman (booing at a shooting match?). Thomas Bach, the International Olympics Committee president, has made his disapproval public. "This is unacceptable," he said.

That may be so, and the boors from Brazil deserve a dressing down. But now a quartet of U.S. Olympians may have won the competition for most galling behavior.

Swimmer Ryan Lochte and three of his teammates told police earlier this week they'd been robbed at gunpoint by men posing as police officers after leaving an all-night party in Rio's tony south zone. The more they elaborated on their saga, however, the more rococo the tale became. The swimmers couldn't agree on how many assailants there were nor the color of the taxi they'd hired. They told the police that the thieves took some cash, but inexplicably left them their wallets, phones and Olympic passes.

Lochte left Brazil earlier in the week, but after pulling two of his teammates off a U.S.-bound plane and confiscating their passports, Brazilian police are now reporting that the swimmers were not robbed at all. Instead, they had gotten into a scuffle with employees at a gas station. In a press conference on Thursday, Rio state Civil Police chief Fernando Veloso said a security tape and testimony from witnesses revealed the athletes had vandalized the convenience store and appeared to be under the influence of alcohol. In the ensuing confrontation over paying for damages, a security guard had brandished a weapon. If the police version is confirmed, the swimmers could face possible criminal action, though the police declined to say what kind of punishment that might be.

Brazilians understandably take such reports seriously. After all, the run-up to the Rio games was a nonstop drip of disparaging news, including a brutal recession, the devastating zika virus, escalating crime and a suppurating corruption scandal that exposed the political establishment as shameless freebooters.

On top of that drubbing came a relentless blitzkrieg by media and scientists questioning whether Rio was fit to host the world's most revered sporting event and safeguard the world's champions and their fans. 

In response, authorities went to Olympian lengths to make the games secure, assigning 85,000 cops, soldiers and security snoops to the task. So word of the world's greatest athletes assaulted on their watch would be not just an embarrassment, but a testament to host country incompetence. 

So Brazilians haven't taken kindly to Lochte's shifting account. In the local interpretation, here were sports idols who'd had their glory and suddenly were trying to play the cops and the public.

The police are still investigating the incident, which has tapped into some abiding stereotypes of arrogant Americans who think they're above the law. Rest assured that aggrieved Brazilians will be following the play by play with more than passionate interest.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net