#LochteGate, or It’s 1862 All Over Again

Daryle Williams is back from Rio, but he’s still following the Olympics news, including the latest scandals. Williams, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, is the co-editor of The Rio de Janeiro Reader. Follow him on Twitter @DaryleWilliams and with the hashtag #RioReader.

A group of young white male visitors, having traded uniforms bearing their home flag for civilian clothes, are out on the town in Rio de Janeiro. They spend time blowing off steam at a tavern frequented by foreigners. On their journey back to their lodgings, the group has a run-in with an armed Brazilian sentry. A discussion ensues, then blows are exchanged. The men end up being taken in by the Rio police, to answer charges of public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and insults to a uniformed officer. National and foreign authorities initially take measured tones in trying to resolve the issue, while the local press whips up hysteria, stoking nativist hostility to carousing, misbehaving, disrespectful, and all around boorish outsiders who treat Brazilian sovereignty with careless disregard. The foreigners are pilloried in the court of public opinion that flourishes in the fast-paced press. Popular culture quickly incorporates the miscreants into stage parodies, satirical jokes, and visual culture. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the charges and countercharges of injury to body and nation fail. International arbitration eventually finds no fault in the Brazilians’ actions. Rio’s authorities and residents feel vindicated, though their suspicions about the arrogance of white outsiders returns to its prior state of latency, primed for the next incident of drunkenness and insult. Life goes on.

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Sure sounds like #LochteGate, the unexpected cause célèbre of the Rio Olympics, right? Actually, the events summarized above took place in the early 1860s, during a hallmark episode of nineteenth-century Rio history known as the Anglo-Brazilian Question. Also known as the Christie Affair, the period involved a two-year suspension of diplomatic relations between the British and Brazilian monarchies.

The Anglo-Brazilian Question was a signal (yet curiously overlooked) episode in the history of the Brazilian slave regime, but one of its chief precipitating events had ostensibly little to do with slaves and slaveholding. On the evening of 17 June 1862, three officers of the British frigate Forte, taking leave to dine at the hotel of British proprietor Robert Bennett in Tijuca, got into a physical altercation with Brazilian sentry Manoel Luis Teixeira. The Britons were arrested, detained overnight, and then paraded to the police corps barracks on Rua dos Barbonos (today’s Rua Evaristo da Veiga, near the Arcos da Lapa). In the ensuing investigation, the detained officers’ state of inebriation was disputed. The nature of the insults against the Brazilian officials was also contested. All parties admitted a debilitating language barrier. All parties invoked on numerous occasions a defense of national, manly honor.

The Brazilian government refused the demand of William D. Christie, chief British envoy to the Brazilian Court, to publish a statement expressing regret for the arrests. In the ensuing stalemate (exacerbated by a British blockade of the port and Christie’s obnoxious attitudes), entrepreneurial local playwrights had a field day with satirical send-ups of drunken, rapacious, and disagreeable Brits. In mid-January 1863, the naturalized Brazilian J.F.K. da Costa Rubim (1831-1866) published Os inglezes no Brasil. The prologue between Dona Cótinha, the Brazilian proprietor of the Hotel dos Estrangeiros, and Lord Botija, a visiting Englishman, sets the tone perfectly for a conflict between virtuous Brazilians and condescending Englishmen who come across as imbecilic drunkards and tricksters solely out for financial gain at the expense of the Brazilians. The one-act play progresses quickly through scenes which make fun of British social customs (an excess of personal servants, overdrinking), racial prejudices, and the exploitative economic relationship of Brazilian primary products bought on the cheap and then sold back as high-priced manufactures. Later in January, Francisco Correa Vasques (1839-1892), a mixed-race descent performer who was a fixture of the Rio’s comic and musical stage through the early republic, performed the one-act “scena comica” A questão anglo-brasileira. Like his many other works, the one-man play resonated with the intelligentsia of Brazilian capital. The themes of national honor spilled into Rio streets, where the crowd played an active role in defending the government against foreigners’ insults and aggressions on land and in territorial waters.

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With lightning speed, LochteGate has introduced its own cast of foreigner rogues and aggrieved patriots. The case has given North American observers full license to plumb the complicated relationship between the United States and Brazil (see, for example, the complexo da vira-lata thesis) as well as the buffoonery of the misbehaved Ugly American (an instant classic begins “Ryan Lochte is the dumbest bell that ever rang.”) Like the sailors of the Forte, the four members of Team USA who misled authorities, the “Today Show,” and their mothers (!) with a fabricated story of a robbery at gunpoint have been pilloried in the media. (The comments section has been brutal.) In our Warholian future, we have been introduced to a motley crew of fame-seekers blowing through their fifteen minutes. Brazilians (and their allies) have nearly broken the internet with the ardent defense of the national cause, cheap take-downs of stupid Americans, and a bewildered sense of how this particular incident could consume so much media coverage and police investigative resources when the real story of real gun violence goes overlooked as everyday citizens, children, and security personnel are felled by bullets and bandits.

The story of the XXXI Olympiad and its host city is yet to be written, but an early draft might treat LochteGate as we treat what appeared to be an otherwise non-consequential, hyper local scuffle between a trio of English jerks and a Brazilian sentry — both parties puffed up on masculinity and chauvinism; both parties lacking the ability to communicate effectively without resort to violence; at least one party intoxicated — on the road from Tijuca in June 1862. The details may be forgettable and the truth inscrutable, but the incidents reveal the mindset of the moment and an era in Rio de Janeiro. The prevarications and self-serving explanations of LochteGate shall quickly fade away, but we will be left with tantalizing traces of Rio’s historical development as a cosmopolitan city of delights and conflicts, of work and leisure, of a rich public sphere, and of contested order and disciplinary regimes at an Olympic Time.

This history-to-be-written might explore why one of the Americans’ greatest transgressions was not the night of post-competition carousing (which, we learn via social media and face-to-face gossip, might have included an amorous escapade to one of Rio’s legal bordellos) but instead the everyday act of urination. In the era of mega-events, the Rio municipal government has taken a hard line against old-style anything-goes public urination, imposing fines (erratically) on offenders while installing permanent public urinals (named Unidades Fornecedoras de Alívio) at the Central do Brasil rail station, Praça Santos Dumont in Gávea, and Praça Saens Pena in Tijuca, among other locales. Victims to continual vandalism (not unlike the acts of property destruction that Lochte appears to have committed during those fateful moments at a Barra gas station), these relief stations have established the state’s front lines in a battle of body discipline. LochteGate, then, might help us better understand a historical shift in customs surrounding male comportment outside the home. By another token, the swimmers’ pee might be aligned with the trope of the Olympics of Filth, and the well-deserved attention to the flows of untreated human waste that have fouled numerous Olympic venues (and just about every waterway in Greater Rio).

The history-to-be-written might also unpack the geography of the swimmers’ excursions. In 1862, our British rouges traveled from Botafogo to Tijuca, returning in the direction of the port via Andaraí. Long before Olympic Rio, the oceanfront neighborhoods of the Zona Sul as well as the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas had displaced the hills leading into Tijuca Forest as a preferred destination for international pleasure-seekers. (In a city as large and diverse as Rio, variety remains: central Lapa has once again captured the imagination of the night, and samba school ensaios draw local and visiting revelers to the subúrbios.) According to press reports and surveillance video, Lochte’s travels began and ended in the Olympic Village in Barra da Tijuca, with a stop at the Sociedade Hípica (and possibly a detour to Jardim Botânico). This itinerary calls upon the urban historian to understand how these once-sparsely populated, former wetlands of the Zona Sul and Oeste, that were quite remote from one another until the 1960s, have been woven together by massive works of civil engineering, private property speculation, car culture, and patterns of consumerism that have shunned the cultural and class-mixed, walkable entertainment zones (including the theatre district where Vasques performed) closer to downtown. Otherwise inane, LochteGate might help illuminate the shifting geographies of pleasure, distinction, and the Carioca culture industries that have been accelerated by the explosive development of Barra da Tijuca.

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Finally, the history of LochteGate has a complicated story of color and nation still to be told. The swimmers’ American whiteness and all the privileges that accrue to it have been the lede, but the meat of the story will likely uncover a cast of Brazilian men of color (perhaps some women as well) — the Ipiranga gas station attendants, the taxi driver, the private security personnel, and the public safety officers — who had direct contact with the swimmers as they traveled out and back from Barra and then through the gauntlet of civil police officers, Federal Police agents, and voracious press. Back in 1862, part of the contest of national honor surrounded the English officers’ condescension to locals of color [“but so far from molesting them, we gave several blacks coppers,” one stated to the British Rear-Admiral in self-defense]. The physical scuffle between Englishmen and Brazilian sentries was surely a corporeal enactment of the fraught tension of (perceived) black authority over white bodies. Neither in nineteenth-century Rio, nor in twenty-first century Rio, is there a direct line between color and nation, but in both instances, men of color — especially those entrusted with public security — attain and enact a sort of moral authority of nationhood that can be used against foreigners. White outsiders surely find this disorienting. Carioca whites, no doubt, also find estrangement in this arrangement. In this unsettled territory, we have one of the most interesting and vexing fault lines of Carioca civil society, national cultural identity, and race in the spotlight of the Olympics.

The history of #Rio2016 does not necessarily need #LochteGate, but LochteGate has sure made the Rio Olympics fun and interesting. For this, we can all be grateful that the ring of the dumbest bell has reached our ears.

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