Lewis Diuguid

U.S. swimmers who lied in Rio keep alive image of ‘ugly American’

In this Aug. 14 frame from surveillance video released by Brazil Police, swimmers from the United States Olympic team appear with Ryan Lochte, right, at a gas station during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A top Brazil police official said the swimmers damaged property at the gas station.
In this Aug. 14 frame from surveillance video released by Brazil Police, swimmers from the United States Olympic team appear with Ryan Lochte, right, at a gas station during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A top Brazil police official said the swimmers damaged property at the gas station. The Associated Press

None of the 23 persons in our group needed “the talk,” but Rodrigo González felt obligated to tell us anyway.

He called it “ethical tourism,” asking people visiting Cuba in the National Association for Multicultural Education to be “socially responsible” in our cultural and professional exchange in his native country. We thought that was the only way to behave especially as Americans in another nation.

Some members of the U.S. Olympic team, however, have shown that assumption can be totally wrong. U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and three of his teammates after a night of drinking vandalized a gas station’s bathroom early Sunday and were questioned by armed guards before they paid for the damage and left.

But the story that made headlines and national TV news was that early Sunday morning Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen were being driven home in Rio in a taxi Sunday morning when the vehicle was stopped by men posing as armed police, and the athletes were robbed. It looked like a terrible embarrassment for Brazil, which had already suffered a lot of bad press because of the Zika virus, crime and being unprepared for the start of the games.

The problem with the swimmers’ “story,” however, was surveillance footage from the gas station and other statements gave a very different account of what transpired. The tables of embarrassment turned this week on the United States because of the athletes’ offensive behavior and outright lies to coverup what they had really done.

Chief of Civil Police of Rio Fernando Veloso said the U.S. swimmers damaged the bathroom at the Shell gas station, and when the gas attendees confronted them they tried to exit in the taxi. Another person offered to interpret from Portuguese (Brazil’s native language) to English and told the swimmers they needed to pay for the damage.

The athletes forked over a $20 dollar bill and 100 Brazilian reals and left before police arrived.

Confronted at the airport this week leaving the games, Conger and Bentz told authorities the robbery story was a lie. Lochte also on Friday apologized on social media for his behavior and for not being candid. His words, however, were totally hollow compared with the deeds of the gold medalists and the others.

The swimmers gave a face to the “ugly American” image that people in other countries know too well. It’s one of Americans acting as if they are the center of the universe; Americans who are offensive to others and show disrespect and disdain for other people and other cultures.

Ugly Americans judge everything by American standards and flaunt an American exceptionalism wherever they go. It’s always wrong, and the world has no reason to tolerate such bad, embarrassing boorish behavior.

It is the exact opposite of the ethical tourism that our Cuba group was advised to maintain. Visitors from abroad must always be socially responsible to the people, culture and lifestyle of the host nation.

Americans universally need to adopt that behavior — especially athletes who represent this country wherever they go.

What Lochte, Bentz, Conger and Feigen did was inexcusable, and they should accept their punishment with grace and humility.

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