A Brazilian appellate court has dismissed criminal charges against U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte stemming from an incident at a gas station during the Rio Olympics last August. The court concluded that Lochte did not break the law in exaggerating the details of what happened that night.
Decorated American competitive swimmer Ryan Lochte (32) is known as a brash, flamboyant personality in the world of Olympic sports. The 12-time Olympic medalist (six gold, three silver, three bronze) ranks second in swimming behind Michael Phelps. In contrast to Phelps’ laid back demeanor, the swimmer proudly wears colorful American flag diamond encrusted grills while accepting his gold medals. The same brazen attitude that made him famous also got him into trouble last summer at the Rio Olympics games, and almost caused an international incident.
In the wee hours of the morning on August 14, 2016 Lochte and fellow Olympic teammates Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen decided to hit the Rio streets to celebrate the end of the Olympics. According to the athlete, armed men approached and robbed the teammates at a service station and forced them out of the taxi just as they were attempting to pull away. After surveillance video and a police report emerged that confirmed a security guard had brandished a gun after one or more of the athletes vandalized the gas station bathroom, Lochte stated in an interview that he had been drunk and that he “over-exaggerated that story”.
However his amended story raised concerns about the facts, and soon it emerged that Lochte’s taxi had not in fact been stopped by armed men, but that the swimmers had stopped to use the fuel station’s bathroom which Lochte was accused of vandalizing. He initially claimed that money was taken from him, but it was later clarified the money was offered as repayment for the alleged vandalism.
In August 2016, Lochte was charged with providing a false claim of a robbery during the 2016 Olympic Games, and if convicted could be jailed up to 18 months. On August 30, 2016, when appearing on Good Morning America, he said that he was unsure if he would claim the incident, which fulfills the requirements of “armed robbery” under Brazilian law, as a robbery saying “I don’t know if I would consider it as a robbery, or extortion, or us just paying up for the poster being ripped.” The entire incident was labeled “Lochtegate”.
The scandal gained significant media attention and “embarrassed the host city, angered the police and government and dominated news coverage of South America’s first Olympics.” Furthermore, after the incident, Speedo and Ralph Lauren ended their endorsement deals with Lochte, with Speedo announcing that the company would donate $50,000 from Lochte’s endorsement fee to Save the Children in Brazil. According to a commentator and sports business analyst for ESPN, Darren Rovell, Lochte will lose US$1 million. Finally, the swimmers were suspended from competitive swimming for 10 months for the incident.
Lochte’s lawyers in the U.S. and Brazil moved to have the case dismissed, but a three-judge panel in a lower court ruled 2-1 that the charge was legitimate. Nevertheless, an appeals court on Thursday (July 13th) reversed that decision, 2-1, ruling that Brazilian law was not broken because Rio police had initiated the investigation, not Lochte. Whatever Lochte said in the interview with NBC did not constitute a false report, the court concluded. The decision has not yet been published and prosecutors have 15 days to decide whether they will challenge the ruling according to Brazilian law.
“We are pleased that the court has finally dismissed the criminal prosecution against Mr. Lochte, while at the same time, appropriately recognizing that he committed no crime. It has been a long year, but in the end, justice prevailed,” said Jeff Ostrow, Lochte’s Florida-based attorney, in a statement to USA TODAY Sports on Friday.
Apparently the only damage caused by the swimmers at the gas station was the poster that Lochte knocked off a wall. Police and Bentz said that the swimmers paid $20 plus 100 Reais, which is about $33, for the poster. Nevertheless, several opinion writers criticised the contrasting consequences faced by Lochte to both women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was suspended for six months after making unsportsmanlike post-game comments. Some negatively contrasted the treatment of the scandal involving white swimmers against the reaction received by African-American gymnast Gabby Douglas for not placing her hand over her heart during the national anthem.
Today, Lochte seeks to put the entire incident behind him. This summer the swimmer and his fiancé, Kayla Rae Reid, welcomed a baby boy to their family. Lochte’s suspension was lifted in June and he has been training for the Olympics in 2020. Let’s just hope Lochte got all of the partying out of his system last summer.