WASHINGTON (AFP) - Star American swimmer Ryan Lochte, who claimed that he was robbed at gunpoint in Rio with three teammates, apologised on Friday (Aug 19) for his role in an incident that cast an embarrassing shadow over South America’s first Olympics.
The four US gold medal-winning swimmers hoped to draw a line under the scandal that erupted when Lochte went public with a shocking report of how they were mugged on their way early Sunday back from a party in Rio de Janeiro.
The claim that a man posing as a police officer held them up and forced them to the ground sparked a media frenzy and pushed Brazilian Olympic authorities into an embarrassed apology.
But after police declared the story fabricated – saying all that happened was that the swimmers were subdued by security and made to pay compensation for drunken vandalisation of a gas station bathroom – the now discredited Lochte finally came clean, saying he should have been “more careful and candid.”
“I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself and for that am sorry to my teammates, my fans, my fellow competitors, my sponsors and the hosts of this great event,” the 32-year-old Lochte said in a statement.
Late Thursday, US Olympic Committee chief executive officer Scott Blackmun also apologised “to our hosts in Rio and the people of Brazil for this distracting ordeal.”
The International Olympic Committee will launch a disciplinary inquiry into the four swimmers, an IOC official told AFP on Friday.
But Lochte’s lawyer, Jeffrey Ostrow, told USA Today that the swimmer was not admitting guilt or that he lied, and added that he still considered the security guard to have “extorted the money” for the smashed-up bathroom.
Earlier this week, a Rio judge ordered the athletes’ passports to be confiscated so that they could not leave the country.
Lochte had already left, but the other three – Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen – underwent questioning in Rio police stations.
On Thursday, police provided CCTV footage and other evidence about what really happened.
The athletes, who appeared to be intoxicated, stopped in a taxi at a gas station to use the bathroom during the early hours of the morning.
Lochte and the others then vandalised the area near the bathroom and, according to the manager there, urinated on the walls.
Confronted by a security guard, they tried to leave.
When the confrontation escalated, the security guard took out his pistol and made them sit on the ground.
After paying about US$50 (S$67) in compensation for the damage to the station, they left unharmed and returned to the athletes’ village.
“There was no robbery of the kind reported by the athletes,” Rio de Janeiro’s police chief Fernando Veloso said. “The images do not show any kind of violence against them.”
Still, Lochte’s lawyer said there was more to uncover about the actions of the security guard who forced the swimmers to pay for the damage.
“I hope that there is more that comes out of it, find out a little bit more about the security guard or the military police or whoever it was specifically that extorted the money,” he told USA Today.
The three swimmers kept in Brazil retracted the mugging story in interviews with police on Thursday.
Bentz and Conger were then given back their passports and left immediately. Feigen was brought before a judge and ordered first to pay 35,000 reais (S$14,600) to a charitable institution in order to be freed, police confirmed on Friday.
“The swimmer accepted the proposal,” police said in a statement.
The swimmers will now have to face Olympic team leaders back home.
“We do not condone the lapse in judgment and conduct,” USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus said.
Blackmun also called the swimmers’ conduct “not acceptable.” “We will further review the matter, and any potential consequences for the athletes, when we return to the United States,” he said.
Rio is plagued by violent crime and Brazil has deployed 85,000 police and soldiers to secure the Olympics. Numerous athletes – including a British team member on Tuesday night – have been mugged.
But given Lochte’s high profile, his mugging claim and the reported involvement of someone with police identification caused huge embarrassment, overshadowing sporting action in the second week of the Games, which end Sunday.
Brazilian media have covered the US athletes’ subsequent humiliation in exhaustive detail. The powerful Globo television network broadcasting leaked police evidence, shredding the swimmers’ story, far before the authorities made any public statement.
In the United States, Lochte came in for some serious scorn, with comments in the media and on the Internet almost universally scathing.
In his apology, Lochte – who has won 12 Olympic medals, six of them gold – said the gas station confrontation had been scary.
“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,” he said.
But he said: “I accept my responsibility.”