RIO DE JANEIRO — Over the past two weeks, Brazilians feted the four American swimmers and their fellow Olympians with fireworks in the Opening Ceremonies, cheered them in the pool and on the medal stand and hosted them at a thumping dance party in a swanky lakeside nightclub.
After all this hospitality, it came as an extra betrayal to Brazilians that Ryan Lochte and his three U.S. teammates would allegedly embellish their tale of armed robbery, casting Brazil as the villain, in a story that embarrassed authorities and helped portray Rio de Janeiro as a city awash in crime.
As Brazilian police began to unravel the swimmers’ account Thursday — using surveillance footage to show it was a rowdy encounter at a gas station rather than a harrowing gun-to-the-head robbery — Brazilians expressed anger at the athletes’ behavior and had a sense of vindication.
“I’m very aware of the chaos of the city, of the violence, of all the Brazilian problems,” said Tati Leite, a 40-year-old film producer here. “Taking advantage of this, to hide misbehavior, I felt offended.”
Nearly every night, Leite and her friends have gathered to watch the Olympics at their homes and in bars. She went to Copacabana Beach to watch beach volleyball and to Maracanã Stadium to see Brazil play soccer. But from the first days of the Olympics, the heated news coverage of every stray bullet and mugging felt like an exaggeration, she said, one that didn’t ring true with the atmosphere in the city.
“It was a little like American cinema and not the Brazilian reality,” she said. “I think all the Brazilians in general really welcomed the foreigners. Most of the people who came here really liked it.”
“They deserve a penalty for this,” she added.
Brazilians have been suffering through a severe recession and political upheaval; their elected president now awaits trial for impeachment. Violence has risen over the past year. During the Olympics, police have reported many incidents of armed robbery, including against high-profile officials, athletes and coaches.
The story told by Lochte seemed to be the most dramatic example. In an interview with NBC News, he said a taxi that he and fellow American swimmers Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen were riding in Saturday was pulled over by a group of men flashing a police badge. Lochte said one of the robbers put a gun to his head when he refused to get on the ground.
But Thursday, police said Lochte’s story was a fabrication. Instead, police said, the swimmers got into an early morning altercation at a gas station, and a security guard pointed a gun at them.
Paulo Sotero, the director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said the incident was reinforcing “negative stereotypes on both sides.” Where Brazilians saw Americans as arrogant, Americans viewed Brazil as a place of “absolute violence and lawlessness.”
“Making a false statement to authorities is a serious offense there or here,” Sotero said.
Many Brazilians have been outraged by the swimmers story, particularly after glaring holes emerged in their account. Amid relentless criticism of how Brazil has hosted the Olympics — from security problems to logistical mishaps — residents here have grown tired of being disparaged.
“They are inventing everything,” fumed taxi driver Luiz Eloi as he listened to the radio report the developments. “Why are they lying?”
Joe Robinson, a retired police captain from Orlando who is in Rio as an international security consultant during the Olympics, said: “All the Brazilians I’m around, it’s all they talk about. . . . I think the Brazilian view is they’re embarrassing us, by, in their view, making up this story. It’s our reputation.”
On Wednesday night, what had been a shocking and controversial story, one with several holes, including where the alleged robbery took place, threatened to escalate into an international incident, when Bentz and Conger were blocked at the airport from leaving Brazil. Earlier in the day, a judge had ordered that all four Americans’ passports be seized, but Lochte already had left for the United States.
On Thursday, as Brazilian newspaper began reporting new details of the swimmers allegedly damaging property at a gas station, the outrage began to pour out.
“Robbery, assault, rape and so on every day,” wrote one reader, identified as Alberto Mello, of the news story on the O Globo website. “But these guys broke a soap dispenser and more, the police officer who pulled a weapon should have killed them.”
Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas, said Lochte’s allegations had “reinforced or worsened perceptions that Rio is an unsafe place for tourists to go.” Winter said this looks “like a classic case of foreigners who come into Latin America and believe the normal rules no longer apply — that you can go out and get into trouble and then do things like lie to the police without there being any consequences.”
“The notion foreigners can come in and disrespect their police just drives [Brazilians] crazy,” he said.
After the American swimmers cooperated with authorities and the potential punishment seemed limited Thursday, observers predicted it would not strain relations between the United States and Brazil.
Rubens Antonio Barbosa, Brazil’s ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2004, described the American swimmers case as a “minor incident.”
“This is a police case,” he said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think that it will generate any spillover effects in the bilateral relationship.”
“The international media in the beginning were very critical that we would not be ready to host the Olympic Games,” he added. “In the end I think the Games took place in a smooth way.”