Two U.S. swimmers were pulled off their flights to the United States by Brazilian authorities, U.S. Olympic officials said Wednesday night, the latest indication that law enforcement officials were skeptical of the swimmers’ claims that they were held up at gunpoint here.
“We can confirm that Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz were removed from their flight to the United States by Brazilian authorities,” a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee said. “We are gathering further information.”
Earlier Wednesday, a Brazilian judge issued an order to prevent Ryan Lochte and James Feigen, two of the U.S. swimmers who claimed they were robbed at gunpoint during the Olympic Games, from leaving the country as doubts emerged about their statements.
But Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist, had left Brazil before the judge issued the order to seize the passports of the swimmers, according to Lochte’s lawyer in the United States. It was not clear if Feigen was still in Brazil.
In a case that has grabbed headlines around the world, Lochte said that after leaving a party early Sunday he and the three other swimmers were robbed at gunpoint by men who identified themselves as police officers.
The idea that such prominent athletes could be robbed by officers during the Olympics was a huge embarrassment for Brazil, underscoring long-standing concerns about holding the Olympics in a crime-plagued city like Rio de Janeiro.
Now, questions about the Americans’ testimony to the police are turning that embarrassment into anger, with many Brazilians wondering whether the athletes lied about the episode and smeared their country’s reputation in the process.
Investigators have not found evidence corroborating the account, according to local news reports, prompting the judge’s order.
“You can see the supposed victims arriving without signs of being physically or psychologically shaken, even joking amongst themselves,” Judge Keyla Blanc de Cnop said in a statement, referring to video of the swimmers arriving back at the Olympic Village after the party.
Brazilian authorities are coming under scrutiny for an array of armed assaults during the Olympics, despite the deployment of an 85,000-strong security force to ease fears about violent crime in Rio de Janeiro.
Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said that the police had been looking for the two swimmers Wednesday morning, hoping to collect their passports. But the athletes were no longer at the Olympic Village, he said.
“The swim team moved out of the village after their competition ended, so we were not able to make the athletes available,” Sandusky said. “Additionally, as part of our standard security protocol, we do not make athlete travel plans public and therefore cannot confirm the athletes’ current location.”
Lochte’s lawyer, Jeff Ostrow, rejected assertions that his client and the three other swimmers may have fabricated details of the episode, describing such claims as efforts by Brazilian officials to deflect criticism of problems at the Rio Games.
“The country has a dark cloud over it for a million and one reasons, from their economy to their crime to their management of the Olympics,” said Ostrow, who is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and attended the Olympics last week. “My client has cooperated thoroughly with the Brazilian authorities and stands behind his statement.”
Still, there is growing speculation in Brazil that the episode may not have unfolded as the swimmers described it.
Lochte told NBC’s “Today” show that multiple men pulled out their guns and that one of the men took his money and wallet, but left his cellphone and credentials.
Lochte also told USA Today that he and the three other swimmers did not initially tell the U.S. Olympic Committee about what happened “because we were afraid we’d get into trouble.”
Lochte and Feigen told Brazilian investigators that they left the party at Club France, a temporary venue set up to promote France during the Olympics, about 4 a.m. Sunday, according to local news reports.
But video cameras showed the swimmers leaving at 5:50 a.m., about an hour before they arrived at the Olympic Village at 6:56 a.m., according to Extra, a Rio newspaper.
There are other points of confusion in the accounts by Lochte and Feigen, the only swimmers to provide testimony to Brazilian investigators.
The men, who said they were intoxicated upon leaving the party, said they could not remember the color of the taxi they took, or where exactly the assault took place. Investigators have been unable to find the taxi driver who delivered the swimmers back to the Olympic Village.
A prosecutor in Rio, André Buonora, said in a statement that the swimmers could face charges of providing false testimony if they had lied to investigators. Buonora also asked that their passports be seized.
While controversy simmers over the episode, it is not uncommon for the police in Rio to be implicated in armed assaults of both Brazilians and foreigners.
Shortly before the start of the Olympics, Jason Lee, a 27-year-old jujitsu champion from New Zealand, said he was briefly kidnapped here by police officers and forced to withdraw the equivalent of about $800 from his bank account.
Despite a history of such incidents in Rio, many Brazilians have grown defensive over criticism of the city during the Olympics. Some are lashing out at the American swimmers by contending that they are hiding details about what happened.
“So, the American swimmer lied about the robbery?” Mariana Godoy, a prominent television news announcer, asked in a post on Twitter in which she implied that Lochte was trying to cover up something untoward over the weekend.
“He left one party and went to ‘another party’ and didn’t want to tell Mommy about it?” Godoy remarked.
Paula Moura contributed reporting.