American Olympic swimmers Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz were pulled off their flight from Rio de Janeiro to the United States overnight and have been ordered to stay in Brazil for questioning as muddled accounts of a reported robbery involving the athletes spirals into a diplomatic matter.
The two men and fellow US swimmers Ryan Lochte and James Feigen reported being robbed at gunpoint early Sunday in a taxi bound for the Olympic Village by individuals posing as armed police officers, the US Olympic Committee said.
But a series of conflicting accounts by the athletes and authorities since then has caused confusion and turned the event into a diplomatic issue involving consular officials, lawyers, orders to confiscate passports and, now, the removal of athletes from a flight.
The twists and turns in the case also threaten to overshadow the Olympic Games as they draw to a close.
The US committee told CNN that Brazilian authorities had removed the swimmers from the plane Wednesday night for questioning about the robbery. It said they had been released, with the understanding they would discuss the incident Thursday.
Brazilian authorities said they have questions about what happened that night and have concerns over inconsistencies in the accounts of the events.
An attorney for Lochte, Jeff Ostrow, brushed off suggestions of conflicting stories, saying the four swimmers’ accounts “are 95 percent consistent.”
The US Olympic Committee said the robbery occurred after the athletes left a party at the French hospitality house.
On Sunday, Lochte gave a chilling account to NBC, which is broadcasting the Olympics in the United States, saying the swimmers’ taxi was pulled over and men flashed a police badge at the Americans before forcing them to the ground. After Lochte refused to get down, he said a man cocked a gun and pressed it against his head.
But he changed his account slightly Wednesday, NBC reported, saying the men were robbed after using a toilet at a gas station. Lochte said two men tried to force them to the ground, one pointing a gun inches from him when he refused.
Ostrow said the gun was pointed near his client’s head, not against it, adding the difference was just “a matter of inches.”
Public speculation about the incident was fueled by the release of a video obtained by the Daily Mail, which it said was filmed shortly after the reported robbery.
The video appears to show the four swimmers returning to the Olympic Village, and in possession of high-value items that might be expected to have been taken in an armed robbery.
CNN is unable to authenticate the video.
Brazilian Judge Keyla Blanc De Cnop said the athletes’ jocular behavior upon arrival at the Olympic Village — combined with inconsistencies in their statements — led police to question the veracity of their claim.
The judge noted that Lochte had said a single robber approached the athletes and demanded all their money ($400), while Feigen’s statement said a number of robbers targeted the athletes but only one was armed.
‘Happy that they’re alive’
Initial reports regarding the robbery were confusing, with an International Olympic Committee spokesman first saying they were “absolutely not true” at a press conference Sunday.
He later backtracked and apologized, saying he was relying on initial information from the US Olympic Committee that was incorrect.
Ostrow told CNN that the discrepancy came because Lochte first told his mother about the incident and then she relayed it to the media.
Lochte held off on going to the media until he realized he was not in violation of any US Olympic Committee rules, but by then, the story had gone public, Ostrow said.
Ostrow said the video doesn’t show a complete picture of what happened, especially considering there is no audio.
“That video shows me nothing — it shows guys coming home at 6 or 7 in the morning and shows me they’re happy that they’re alive,” he said.
String of thefts
Ostrow suggested authorities were unfairly targeting the swimmers.
“When you have one of America’s athletes who comes out and said something happened to him that happens to people there every single day, that doesn’t look good for a country trying to have a successful Olympics,” Ostrow told CNN over the phone Thursday.
The swimmers are not the only athletes in Rio to complain of theft.
The British Olympic Association told CNN on Thursday that one of its athletes had been a victim of theft there.
“We can confirm there has been an incident of theft involving a Team GB athlete returning to their accommodation. All members of our delegation, including the individual concerned, are accounted for, and are safe and well,” a representative said.
The Australian team also said they had property stolen during a fire evacuation of the team’s building in the Olympic Village.
‘He’s the victim’
Some Twitter users rushed to the swimmers’ defense while chiding Brazilian authorities, many using the hashtag #LochteGate.
Another described the event as “unlucky,” suggesting the police rarely do anything about crime.
But others were not so convinced.
The removal of the swimmers from the plane Wednesday night follows reports that a Brazilian judge issued a search and seizure warrant for Lochte’s and Feigen’s passports as questions emerged about their accounts.
Federal Police say Lochte left Brazil on Monday on a commercial flight, two days before the judicial order.
Ostrow confirmed to CNN earlier his client returned to the United States.
“He’s the victim. He didn’t commit a crime. Same with the other guys,” Ostrow said.
“The story needs to be about 20-something-year-old kids pulled off an airplane, they’re being detained to testify to police?” Ostrow said. “C’mon.”
It’s not clear where Feigen is, though the US Olympic Committee says he is cooperating with Brazilian authorities.
Sergio Riera, an attorney for Conger and Bentz, said the swimmers were frightened and confused as to why they had been taken off their flight and over what they were being ordered to do by different authorities.
“Until that confusion is resolved, they won’t be making statements (to police) but will later obviously be prepared to cooperate in whatever the police require,” Riera said.
It’s not clear if the two had their passports confiscated.
Brazilian civil police say they continue to look for the taxi driver with whom the athletes say they were riding. Police say they have asked the driver to come forward.