Vahe Gregorian

Armed robbery of Ryan Lochte and teammates underscores safety concerns at Rio Olympics

A National Security Force officer patrolled outside the beach volleyball arena along Copacabana Beach just prior to the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
A National Security Force officer patrolled outside the beach volleyball arena along Copacabana Beach just prior to the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. The Associated Press

The 1976 movie “Marathon Man” features one of the most memorable and harrowing scenes in film history.

A Nazi war criminal in hiding, Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), is preparing some sinister dental torture for Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman) unless, presumably, Babe has the right answer to a coded question:

Is it safe?

The problem for Babe as he is strapped into a chair and Szell is prepping instruments is that he really doesn’t know the answer and can only guess at it.

“Yes, it’s safe, it’s very safe. It’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it,” he offers without much conviction.

Asked again, he immediately says, “No, it’s not safe, it’s very dangerous. Be careful.”

When you get right down to it, this is the prevailing dilemma of the Rio Olympics:

Is it safe?

Zika concerns notwithstanding, this all along was the single-most precarious aspect of having the Games here.

Superimposing a mind-boggling logistical scheme over a volatile city in the throes of economic despair was a blueprint for chaos, and the logistics have been wobbly but manageable.

But that’s no longer the question of the Games after U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and three teammates were robbed at gunpoint early Sunday.

Now, the only thing that really matters is being able to deliver the right answer to ... is it safe?

While the issue of terrorism always looms, it’s Rio’s ability to assure safety in the routine that’s now in deeper doubt than ever despite its stated security force of 85,000 military and police.

The gulf between hope and ever-present reality was symbolically juxtaposed immediately after the pageantry of opening ceremonies:

A man was shot and killed outside heavily fortified Maracana Stadium under circumstances that elicited conflicting reports — including those that said it was a would-be mugger who lay dead after trying to assault the chief of security for the ceremony.

With numerous other disturbing reports of violence involving people here for the Games surfaced in between, the lurking fear surged to the forefront in an entirely new way on Sunday.

“We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge. No lights, no nothing, just a police badge, and they pulled us over,” Lochte told NBC. “They pulled out their guns. They told the other swimmers to get down on the ground.

“They got down on the ground. I refused. I was like, ‘We didn’t do anything wrong, so, I’m not getting down on the ground.’

“The guy pulled out his gun. He cocked it, put it on my forehead and he said, ‘Get down.’ I put my hands up. I was like, ‘whatever.’ He took my wallet. He left my cell phone. He left my credentials.”

A lot is terrifying about this, particularly because of what it says about what may or may not be real and how it reinforces that all are vulnerable.

As if reminding was needed:

Two Australian rowing coaches recently were robbed at knifepoint on Ipanema Beach, a Belgian judoka was sucker-punched and mugged in the city and there have even been thefts within the athletes’ village.

Yes, Lochte and Co. were outside the Olympic bubble after enjoying the night life at Club France.

But that doesn’t make the episode any less jarring for anyone visiting Rio.

Only adding to the climate of uncertainty, the International Olympic Committee disputed initial reports as “absolutely not true.”

According to The New York Times, the IOC later suggested its insistent debunking on information obtained from the USOC.

From wherever it stemmed, though, the stance further diminishes the credibility of authorities here on such controversies.

Earlier, for instance, Rio 2016 had said that a media bus passengers were certain was hit by a bullet had merely been hit by a rock.

It also downplayed as “an unfortunate incident” the bullet that tore through the roof of the media center at the equestrian center and missed journalists by a matter of feet.

And, according to The Guardian, it rationalized a second bullet later found at the venue near a military base as not having been actually aimed that way but just collateral damage from a pesky firefight in a nearby favela.

Policing the favelas is an entirely separate topic, worthy in itself but essentially an aside from the question of Rio’s ability to ensure a safe Games.

So, is it safe?

Walk down a street near Copacabana Beach, and chances are that’s how you’ll feel ... even pickpockets are known to be all about.

Then you might see a crowd of Brazilians gathered around a television in a gelateria cheering wildly for beach volleyball, and you’ll smile as you walk on ... only to seconds later feel lucky you didn’t get hit by a car that turned rapidly and without looking.

That sort of thing could happen in any metropolis the size of Rio.

But it was the sort of abrupt transition to reality that reminded you to keep your head on a swivel because of the sheer mystery of a place you saw friends get their credit cards hacked within hours of arrival and you know colleagues who’ve had equipment stolen.

So we stay on alert, in ways I seldom have felt in numerous major cities all over the world — and certainly never in one hosting an Olympics.

You constantly look over your shoulder after you get off a bus late at night near your hotel, because you see the high metal fences that cordon off the nice homes around you and you know that there were 10,000 thefts in Rio in May and that violent crime has increased in the desperation of an economic meltdown.

Then you wake up and feel like such worry is silly, because it feels just like being in another big city with lots nearby you want to see and places you like to eat.

Not once, in fact, in nearly two weeks here has my Spider-Sense flared up, and we should all be wary of the difference between being part of an echo chamber of hysteria and trying to understand what’s true.

It also bears mention that, as promised, there is a lot that is gorgeous about this city and that every day as visitors here we enjoy the hospitality and kindness of Brazilians who make our days.

But is it safe?

Yes, so safe you wouldn’t believe it.

No, it’s very dangerous.

Alas, no one knows the answer any better than Babe did — but we'll stay on high-alert, anyway.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian