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Lochte stole attention from the deserving

Rio de Janeiro – So things didn’t turn out quite according to plan for the locals. When Jenn Suhr and Matt Anderson lost on Friday, it ended any chances of Buffalo-area athletes winning more than one gold medal in a Games for the first time.

But if Anderson wins bronze Sunday with the men’s volleyball team, we’ll come away with three medals in an Olympics for the first time since 1928. Emily Regan took gold in the women’s rowing eight and Jake Kaminski bronze in team archery. And Suhr’s effort in the pole vault showed the courage that transcended any sort of medal.

I’m really grateful for one thing: That Ryan Lochte doesn’t qualify as a local. Lochte is from Rochester and did some competing in Buffalo pools as a kid. But we don’t claim Rochester athletes (Suhr lives in Churchville, but is a native of Fredonia), so there’s been no need to keep tabs on Lochte as an Olympian.

Thank heavens. Imagine having to chase Lochte around during his self-absorbed juvenile odyssey and have other reporters sidle up to me in the press room and say, ‘So what’s up with your boy, Lochte?’

Over several days, Lochte dominated the news, stealing away attention and coverage from the triumphant U.S. swim team and countless other athletes who were realizing their Olympic dreams in Rio. He embarrassed his hometown, disgraced the U.S. Olympic team, and insulted the good people of Brazil in their finest hour.

In case you’ve been asleep for a week, here’s a synopsis of the Lochte saga: Last Sunday, the USOC announced that Lochte and three other U.S. swimmers – Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen – had been robbed at gunpoint early that morning by individuals posing as security officers.

Lochte spun an elaborate, self-serving tale for the media, saying a gun had been cocked to his head and the robbers had taken his wallet and cellphone. He said at one point he told the robbers “Whatever” when they told him to get on the ground. The story didn’t smell right from the start, mainly because people were suspicious of the guy who told it.

It’s still not clear exactly what happened. What is evident is that Lochte lied and embellished his story, and that the incident was instigated when the swimmers urinated outside a gas station and damaged a sign.

Lochte quickly left the country, while two of the other swimmers were detained for questioning at the airport. They gave accounts of the incident at the gas station that were consistent with one another, and conflicted with Lochte’s account.

Since then, Lochte has offered one of those half-baked apologies so common with today’s miscreant athletes. He gave a national interview Saturday night, no doubt fashioned to humanize Lochte and make him more believable to the public. Hey, there’s millions in endorsements at stake here.

It’s too late. The damage is done. Rio didn’t deserve to be played by this self-aggrandizing clown, who helped further the inflated notion that this was a dangerous and unwelcoming place for outsiders.

Sure, there have been problems in Rio. There are problems at every Olympics. This city is plagued by crime, income inequality, poor water, environmental issues, a police force that has been known to shoot people in the ghettoes. Does that sound like any country you know?

Any nation that can nominate the likes of Donald Trump for the most powerful office on the planet should be careful about throwing stones.

I’ve been here for three weeks. It hasn’t been perfect, but I’m notoriously impatient about logistics. The service in restaurants could be quicker, the buses too. Signage in the venues could be better. These are small things. It’s certainly not as bad as Atlanta, which most media considered the worst ever.

On the whole, Rio has done a good job with the Games, considering its significant financial and political problems. The buses and internet have been generally reliable, the people friendly and helpful. Rio has been a cordial host, beginning with a fabulous Opening Ceremony.

I’ve never felt in danger here. The police are all over, usually armed. I’ve walked down deserted alleys at 2 a.m., ridden the subways, trains and buses all over the city, and never felt my well-being threatened – except when I stuck my head out of a subway car and was nearly decapitated by a closing door. My bad.

Yeah, they have panhandlers and people sleeping on the sidewalk, which you’ll see in most major American cities. You’ll see the occasional guy peeing against a wall in an alley, even non-U.S. swimmers. These people like to party. It is a loud, vibrant, beautiful, diverse and yes, infinitely flawed city.

Lochte couldn’t ruin it with his act. It doesn’t matter exactly what went down last Sunday. Lochte bears the blame. He’s a notorious attention hog. Four years ago, he was supposed to be the darling of the London Olympics, the cool alternative to Michael Phelps. He was one of four men ever to appear on the cover of Vogue.

Then he swam the anchor leg of the 4x100 freestyle relay on the first big night of the 2012 Olympics and choked the race away. Then Lochte, who can’t get enough attention, stiffed reporters in the mixed zone while his teammates took the heat.

Not one athlete has stiffed us here. Jordan Burroughs was gracious and eloquent in defeat. Jenn Suhr, sobbing and sick after the lowest moment of her vaulting career, stopped and talked with the world media after finishing seventh.

That’s what Lochte should have done after the incident at the gas station. He should have shut up and kept on walking, and saved everyone a world of trouble.


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