Brazilian Shakedowns and American Drunken Vandalism Get Lost in Translation

AP Photo
The Associated Press

Foreigners called their water dirty, their air filled with disease-carrying mosquitoes, and their streets highways for highwaymen. Now Brazilians channel their rage at four ugly Americans.

Police in the South American nation recommend indicting American swimmers Ryan Lochte and and Jimmy Feigen for calling a robbery what Brazilians call restitution. Fellow gold medalists Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger, pulled off a plane Wednesday night, finally returned to the airport after a three-hour interrogation but did so only after navigating a gauntlet of angry Brazilians chanting “liars” and banging on the roof of their car. That’s Portuguese for “goodbye.”

That all seems a natural reaction to the realization that your tax-funded, multi-billion-dollar global advertisement for tourism morphed into a 17-day negative infomercial on the pathologies and pollution plaguing your beloved homeland. The humiliation required of Ryan Lochte calls for something beyond turning the 12-time Olympic medalist’s hair Brazil-flag green in a Midori-colored swimming pool. The mob wants blood—or at least extradition.

The quartet claimed Rio robbers rolled them Sunday night. The police say they vandalized a bathroom’s door, soap dispenser, and mirror. They didn’t get ripped off. They paid reparations.

Something seems lost in translation.

Both sides agree the swimmers turned over money at the gas station at the behest of a man pointing a gun at them. They disagree on the amount ($400 vs. $50) and the cause of the transaction (strong-arm robbery vs. impromptu fine). In Brazil, people with badges sometimes rob, rape, and murder people. Such a confusion of roles not coincidentally leads to the nation leading the world with 22 cities on the top-fifty list in murders per capita. They also sometimes look the other way when other people rob, rape, and murder people, which also helps explain the gargantuan crime rate. But in this case of gas-station vandalism Brazil’s Barney Fifes become Harry Callahan. Go ahead, break my bidet.

Rio civil police chief Fernando Velos insists “there was no robbery the way it was reported or claimed by the athletes.” But when a man holding a gun obtains money from you, no matter what preceded, the coerced donor conceivably might, particularly in a drunken state like Lochte and particularly in a corrupt state like Brazil, regard it as theft.

Perhaps some cultural confusion occurred. The custom of Americans, particularly when traveling abroad, includes a healthy amount of cheerful vandalism after a night of drinking. The custom among Brazilians, particularly when wearing a badge, includes shaking down inebriated travelers for cash. Neither Lochte nor the locals appreciate the folkways of foreigners.

If only the world could organize an international festival to alleviate such cultural misunderstandings and bridge the gaps between nations, a quadrennial competition perhaps, then such unfortunate incidents would assuredly disappear faster than Ryan Lochte’s bankroll.