The Olympic scandal created by American swimmer Ryan Lochte and three teammates moved toward a resolution Friday, with Lochte issuing a qualified apology for lying about an alleged robbery and swimmer James Feigen reaching a deal that would allow him to leave Brazil.
“I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend – for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics,” Lochte said in a statement that he linked to from his Twitter feed.
It was his first comment since the Rio de Janeiro police chief called Lochte’s story of being held at gunpoint and robbed an outright lie.
Late Friday, Lochte’s teammate Gunnar Bentz issued a statement, after arriving back home earlier in the day, denying he’d ever lied about events in Brazil and pointed blame at the flamboyant Lochte.
“I never made a false statement to anyone at any time,” Bentz said in his statement, which did not say why he maintained silence for days after Lochte told NBC’s “Today” show that the four had been victims of armed robbery at gunpoint.
The four U.S. swimmers had faced charges of filing false complaints to police after fabricating a story that they had been the victims of an armed robbery, following a night of partying, by men posing as police.
What a shame they have such character faults.
Eduardo Paes, Rio’s mayor
The 12-time medalist, who managed to make it to the United States before a judicial order to seize his passport could be executed, said he’d waited until the legal situation of his teammates was dealt with before breaking his silence in what has jokingly become known as “Watergate” because swimmers were caught in a lie.
While he said he was sorry, Lochte’s three-paragraph statement attempted to justify what had taken place.
“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,” Lochte said.
The statement made no mention of Police Chief Fernando Veloso’s contention that off-duty police officers working as security guards had been the ones who’d pointed a gun at the drunken U.S. swimmers when they tried to flee after vandalizing a gas station bathroom.
They were allowed to leave after they handed over about $50 worth of U.S. and Brazilian currency to pay for damages to a mirror and other bathroom accessories.
Surveillance video from the gas station, taken shortly after 6 a.m. Sunday, appears to confirm the police chief’s version of events. The men can be seen visibly impaired, trying to get into the wrong cab and being combative with the employees of the gas station, which is near the Olympic village.
Security video of their arrival at the Olympic village minutes before 7 a.m. calls into question Lochte’s tweeted description of a traumatic event. The four swimmers have all their belongings and are cracking jokes as they pass through the security check.
None of the video squares with the version Lochte gave NBC’s “Today” show, where he said he’d had a gun put to his head and been ordered to lie down.
In his lengthy statement Friday night, Bentz contradicted police and media accounts that the men broke down a bathroom door or trashed the bathroom.
“I am unsure why, but while we were in that area, Ryan [Lochte] pulled to the ground a framed metal advertisement that was loosely anchored to a back wall,” he wrote. “I then suggested to everyone that we needed to leave the area and we returned to the taxi.”
Bentz’s version lined up with the account given by Rio police that two security guards with weapons made them sit down and wait for offices to arrive.
“Again, I cannot speak to his actions, but Ryan stood up and began to yell at the guards,” Bentz said. “After Jack [Conger] and I both tugged at him to sit back down, Ryan and the security guards had a heated verbal exchange, but no physical contact was ever made.”
The statement from the University of Georgia swimmer also took issue with the videotape released by Rio’s police chief. Some video angles were not shown, he said, that would have substantiated Bentz’s account and testimony.
“I also believe some scenes have been skipped over,” the statement said.
The tone of Thursday night’s statement by the United States Olympic Committee suggested that at least Lochte and perhaps the other swimmers could face punishment from the USOC and perhaps even be banned from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Both swimmers’ statements Friday were carefully worded amid speculation the USOC was under increased pressure to take action given the high negative publicity.
Bentz and fellow swimmer Jack Conger left Rio late Thursday after providing testimony to police that contradicted Lochte’s.
“I am very proud to represent my country in Olympic competition and this was a situation that could and should have been avoided,” Lochte said in his statement. “I accept my role in this happening and have learned some valuable lessons.”
The last swimmer to leave, Feigen, appeared headed home Friday. According to a statement from the USOC, Feigen “provided a revised statement” to police Thursday night “with the hope of securing the release of his passport as soon as possible.”
Multiple news reports early Friday quoted his lawyer, Breno Melaragno, as saying Feigen had reached a deal to pay a fine of nearly $11,000 that would be directed to a charity in Brazil. In exchange, he’d be allowed to leave.
Melaragno did not return calls or respond to emails requesting comment, but published reports said Feigen’s payment would be directed to the Instituto Reacao, an athletic organization that had trained Rafaela Silva, who went from the City of God slum to winning a gold medal in judo and became a icon for this country’s downtrodden Afro-Brazilian population.
But In yet another plot twist, the Public Ministry of the State of Rio de Janeiro issued a statement shortly before 6 p.m. local time Friday saying it was appealing the fine worked out between Feigen’s attorneys and a judge.
It appears that the appeal — on which a decision could come at any time — would not prevent Feigen from leaving Brazil.
The ministry is akin to a state attorney general’s office and in a statement issued on its website indicated the nearly $11,000 fine was too low and should be 150,000 reais, or in the ballpark of $47,000.
The notice said Feigen’s defense rejected that sum as “disproportional given the actual financial conditions of the swimmer.” While negotiations continued, the judge handling the case ruled before negotiations had concluded and made the unusual statement.
The ministry, for whom Rio’s police work, believes the fine “is insufficient given the gravity and negative repercussion of the act.”
Feigen’s deal was worked out by a special magistrate with jurisdiction over large sporting events. The ministry said for that reason it was appealing to a higher court, as well as appealing to the magistrate’s office directly.
Brazilians have been highly offended by the scandal, which had a snowball effect on what had already been a spate of bad news in this beleaguered Olympic city. Rio’s police chief said the U.S. swimmers, whose accomplishments in the pool have been tarnished, owed ordinary Brazilians a direct apology.
The closest Lochte got in his statement Friday was an apology “to my teammates, my fans, my fellow competitors, my sponsors, and the hosts of this great event.”
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, speaking in a public forum Friday, said he appreciated the apology the previous night from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Of the swimmers, he offered, “What a shame they have such character faults.”
Luke DeCock of the Raleigh News & Observer contributed to this report.