Ryan Lochte apologizes but will the Brazilian people accept it?
It took five days for American swimmer Ryan Lochte to issue a response to the turmoil and anger he left behind at the Summer Olympics.
It could take longer to know if the Brazilian people will accept his vague and often rambling apology.
In a three-paragraph statement Friday, Lochte expressed remorse for “not being more careful and candid” when he claimed earlier this week that he and three U.S. swimming teammates were pulled over and robbed at gunpoint by men posing as police.
“I accept responsibility for my role in this happening and have learned some valuable lessons,” the 12-time Olympic medalist said.
Immediate reaction among Rio de Janeiro residents on social media was skeptical, but Lochte’s mea culpa seemed to mollify local Olympic officials.
“I think that the Brazilian population will accept his apologies and we want to put this matter to an end,” said Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada, who said Brazilians had been humiliated by the incident.
Lochte’s statement capped a wild 24 hours that began Thursday with a packed news conference where Rio police alleged that he and his teammates had not been robbed, but instead had stopped at a gas station in the early morning hours Sunday, damaged a bathroom and been in a confrontation with employees.
Two of the swimmers involved, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger, were pulled off a plane on Wednesday and prevented from leaving the country. They were allowed to return to the U.S. late Thursday night after giving statements that allegedly contradicted Lochte’s account and bolstered that of the police.
Minutes after their flight departed, U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Scott Blackmun issued a strongly worded statement calling the behavior of the four athletes “not acceptable.”
“We apologize to our hosts in Rio and the people of Brazil for this distracting ordeal in the midst of what should rightly be a celebration of excellence,” Blackmun said.
In a separate statement, USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus promised a thorough investigation of the matter.
Friday morning, the fourth swimmer, Jimmy Feigen, apologized during a court hearing and agreed to a fine of about $10,800 for falsely reporting a crime. Authorities said he would be allowed to leave the country after making payment.
Lochte wasn’t in Brazil for any of this, having returned to the U.S. on Monday. The next day, he tweeted about changing his hair color.
His apology Friday made reference to a gas station security guard drawing a gun during the confrontation. The swimmers handed over about $50 to pay for the damage they had done. Police said the guard was within his rights to draw a weapon to keep the swimmers from fleeing. The swimmers initially categorized it as a form of extortion.
“It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave,” Lochte said in his statement, “but regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself and for that I am sorry to my teammates, my fans, my fellow competitors, my sponsors and the hosts of this great event.”
Though an International Olympic Committee spokesman called the apology “entirely appropriate,” a crisis management expert in the U.S. questioned whether its tone would sway public sentiment.
“He apologizes but never says what he’s apologizing for,” said Glenn Selig, founder of The Publicity Agency in Tampa, Fla. “You wonder, is he really sorry? He sort of portrays himself as a victim.”
Lochte said he waited to issue a statement until his teammates’ legal situation had been addressed and they would be cleared to go home.
Less clear are the potential consequences for him. On Thursday, Brazilian authorities said they were in contact with the FBI to determine if he might be compelled to give a statement in the U.S.
There was also the possibility that Lochte might be indicted, said Fernando Veloso, the head of Rio de Janeiro’s civil police.
Selig said Lochte’s statement appeared to be worded so as not to admit to any criminal misconduct.
Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes told reporters Friday that he appreciated the USOC’s apology but felt “shame and contempt” for the four swimmers.
The mayor added: “Too bad we have a character flaw. It certainly does not represent the American athletes who have come here.”
Lochte seemed hopeful that his statement would put the matter to rest.
“There has already been too much said and too many valuable resources dedicated to what happened last weekend,” he said, “so I hope we spend our time celebrating the great stories and performances of these Games and look ahead to celebrating future successes.”
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