U.S. swimmers' tall tale touches a raw nerve in Brazil

Fri Aug 19, 2016 5:40pm EDT
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By Daniel Flynn and Brad Brooks

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - When an angry crowd of Brazilians jeered U.S. Olympic gold medal swimmers Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger, calling them 'liars' and giving one of them a tug on the ear, the young Americans looked shocked by the ferocity of their reaction.

What they appeared not to realize was that a fabricated story about how they and two team mates had been robbed at gunpoint - allegedly told to cover up an act of vandalism at a Rio gas station - hit a raw nerve in this South American nation.

Brazilians are deeply proud of their country - its infectious music, sun-kissed beaches, five World Cup victories and its status as a regional heavyweight - but are acutely aware of its problems: deep-rooted corruption, poverty and the crime that stalks the slums of its megacities, like Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil looks northward to the United States - like itself, a big country built on successive waves of immigration - with a mixture of respect, admiration, envy and resentment.

The complicated relationship has led to episodes - some minor, others deadly - involving Americans flaunting Brazilian law to the ire of those living here. The swimmers' scandal neatly fits Brazil's stereotypical view of "Ugly Americans".

"Brazil is a country that already has an inferiority complex when it comes to the United States," said Esther Solano, a sociologist at the Federal University of Sao Paulo who was in Rio for the Games.

"So people here feel vulnerable and angry when Americans come down here and act like they can do whatever they want, with no respect for rules or regard for the locals."


2016 Rio Olympics - Athletics - Final - Men's Decathlon Javelin Throw - Groups - Olympic Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 18/08/2016. A poster showing a likeness of Ryan Lochte (USA) of USA is seen at the stadium. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler