Why I Believe Ryan Lochte: My Experience with Alcohol, Language Barriers and “Cops & Robbers” in Nara Japan

The media whiplash around #Lochtegate has been incredible to observe. We went from believing him to questioning him to calling him a liar all in a whirlwind few day period. Today Speedo announced they were dropping him as a sponsor.

Here’s the sad thing: I believe his story

Well, to be fair, the initial story had some exaggerations and embellishments. The story about the gun in the face and his incredible machismo… yea that was unfortunate and escalated the situation.

People keep asking “why does Lochte keep going on camera and lying? What is wrong with him?” Because Lochte’s story isn’t wrong. Brazil’s police just took control and told a better one.

But the story about being unfairly forced to pay money to leave by people imitating police officers — a story corroborated by his fellow swimmers and a witness? Yea, I think they probably did get “robbed” from their perspectives. And frankly I think the Brazilian government/police did a masterful job of managing the PR storm afterwards to paint these Americans as drunken assholes who vandalized and got what they deserved. But I think that perspective is biased by the perspective the police want told. Read the coverage by USA Today and you’ll see that it’s much less clear than the Brazilians or some in the media would have you think. And Lochte’s reputation doesn’t make him a particularly sympathetic character in this story.

I believed the main narrative of the swimmer’s stories. They essentially had no choice but to pay someone money who had a badge and a weapon. They were in a situation where the tipped power dynamic gave them no choice. Because I have been in that position. A few years back I was an American in a place I don’t want to be again.

Two security guards showed badges but aren’t cops on duty. They force you do something that you don’t quite understand. You are scared, inebriated and just trying to get home.

So yea, I can see exactly how they got robbed. And yea we can blame them, but in that moment someone in power took advantage of an unfair power dynamic.

How a night out in Nara Japan during a study abroad trip ended up with ‘rent-a-cops’ and being demanded to give them money.

Our Night Out in Nara Japan

In 1999, I was studying abroad in Kobe, Japan. I set off with four guys to tour Southern Japan and our stop that day was Nara, an ancient capital. I was with four other college students (pictured above). We decided to grab drinks and picked a bar based on a recommendation from someone at the front desk of the hotel.

As we walked to this bar — we were actually planning for a tame night given we were on our fourth day of travel and had spent the day touring and the evening at a Japanese bath (which was one of the “must dos” from our hotel concierge). So we had asked for a quiet bar, not a club and he’d given us a name and a direction to head.

The bar was called High Times. And after about a 30 minute “wandering” walk we found it and walked in.

It was “sleepy” to say it kindly. There was maybe one couple in there and no one at the bar. We grabbed five stools and placed our orders. They took 30 minutes to finally deliver the round but we didn’t mind — this was going to be a ‘chill’ night. We took our drinks and all clinked glasses. Then came a question from the bartender that changed the tenor of the evening.

“Are you Dallas Cowboys?” asked the bartender.

Why he asked we had no idea. Maybe football players had come before or maybe they were football fans. But we all paused at the odd question.

John looked at the rest of us and smiled. “Yes, yes we are Dallas Cowboy football players. Hi I am Troy Aikman.”

It was a playful response. The five of us were all over six foot and had larger build than 99% of the Japanese we’d met on the trip. So to them we must have looked like football players.

The bartender looked excitedly at us and ran to the back. He came back with two other individuals who all shook our hands. This must have been a big deal for a random weeknight in the bar. The bartender proceeded to pour a round of shots and the growing group of staff all took one with us.

This was suddenly looking anything but chill.

The bar began to hum although we were still the only patrons. What seemed like a half a dozen or more staffers began to join us at and behind the bar.

We didn’t order a single drink from there on out. Shots were poured. Beers were passed out. Drinking games were played (the worst was what I can only describe as five waters and five everclear shots — mixed up and hope you get a water).

We drank and danced and took photos with a Polaroid camera that where hung behind the bar. It was like they were throwing a party for us. And the language barrier basically made it such that our role was to take whatever they gave us, cheer with one of the staffers and drink.

From Fun to Scary (Quickly)

After we were sufficiently inebriated (and so were out bartenders) we decided it was time head out. We had a tour that began the next morning at like 9 am (sadly we did not make it!) It was obvious they did not want us to go. We were motioned for one more round — which we did begrudgingly but with smiles. The thing I loved about the Japanese culture was their hospitality. And we knew that saying no was not the cap to the night we’d had.

Our bartenders asked us to take photos with them and, in broken English, asked for our autographs. We gladly obliged and they repaid the favor by signing their names on a drink coaster for us… or so we thought. No one in our group was sure, but we guessed it was 3 am by this point.

Then we hoisted ourselves up and tried to pay them as we started to leave. Our bartenders quickly shook their hands and waved at us — signaling that it wasn’t necessary. There was a round of bows. We all threw a few bills on the bar as a thank you tip, grabbed the drunkest of our group, waves goodbye and left.

The next few minutes were a blur… we walked back down that long street and hoped to find a cab who could take us to the hotel. At least one person in our group was struggling and was in no shape to walk anywhere. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, we came to a main street and flagged down a cab. There wasn’t room for us all so we threw one person into the cab and picked which of us would chaperone him home while we waited for a second cab.

That’s when things turned from drunken fun to scary. Suddenly our two bartenders were running up the street to us yelling with two individuals dressed in some “security” outfit. They were yelling at us in Japanese, screaming at the cab and cabbie and trying to tell us something. In one hand they were holding a coaster with something written on it and pointing at us. One of the security people had his baton out. I don’t recall feeling scared — I honestly thought we’d left something given the fun we had all just had.

But I was drunk. Like really drunk. And yet I was probably the most sober of the group. So that meant I had to quickly sober up and figure out what had them so agitated and eventually navigate what became a fairly tense situation. And making matters worse my traveling partners thought what was happening was hilarious.

“I don’t understand” I tried to tell the group forming around me. “What do you want?”

They continued to point at a drink coaster and yell in Japanese mixed with bits of English. The security people didn’t seem to speak English so there was some sort of translation going on amongst the group. There was growing agitation. My lack of understanding wasn’t helping matters. Our bartenders who had been drinking with us and weren’t much more sober than us were clearly mad and getting madder.

“You pay,” I heard one of them say.

Ah. That was it. Something had happened in the exchange as we left. This was a bill issue I reasoned. The coaster had something written on it. We had thought they’d been okay with a few bills tipped and clearly they were no longer okay. Maybe it was their boss who had said something about it after we left or maybe it was something scratched on the drink coaster that we couldn’t read.

But clearly now they wanted money.

Yes we drank a lot. And we’d paid cash for the first round we ordered. But after that first round, we didn’t have time to order more drinks. They were foisted upon us with great celebration. And the staff were drinking with us. It was very confusing as I tried to process their anger. Honestly I have no idea how much this should have cost because there was no itemized receipt and I didn’t order a single drink after my first — but we’d all still drank plenty. I knew our first round was about $25 USD. And we’d had many rounds from there. So let’s just say the amount drank was a bit of a grey area. Did we owe them? In the heat of the moment that question was way down the list. I was just trying not to get arrested in a foreign country.

I took the drink coaster with some words and a number on it. I quickly did the math and it was about $240. I’d tipped them earlier with the bills in my wallet (which was about $30 when I’d left) so I didn’t have that amount handy. The two guys already in the cab had convinced the taxi to take off while I was negotiating with the bartenders and officers, so there were only three of us still there.

Was $240 the right amount? Was it fair? Did we order it? Or did we get drinks bought for us? Would we have ordered that amount without them pouring drinks like they were? All I had was a drink coaster, two agitated and drunk bartenders and a couple cops/security guys who didn’t speak English and had come in waving batons at us and yelling at the cab not to leave.

So I made a quick decision to try and end the confrontation with cash. I grabbed the wallets of the two other remaining guys and cobbled together the money. After I gave it to the bartenders they looked at it and one of them held back out his hand.


That was when I lost it. I had paid the amount they demanded because I felt like I honestly had no choice. Who was I to argue even though I had no idea if that amount was legit. The cop or guy dressed in a security outfit made me feel that way. For all I knew me refusing to pay meant jail. For all I knew he had been told some story by the bartenders that had put me in a poor light. I didn’t have a choice — or so I felt.

“No. No tip.” I said pointing at the money in their hands.

Their agitation level rose again and they began talking to the officers. I began to get the gist from the pointing and hand gestures that the bartenders were urging the cop to take us somewhere to settle this. Back to the bar? To a police car? To the police station? To jail? The bartender kept putting his hand on my shoulder pushing me back towards the direction we had come.

I made a split decision that could have gone poorly.

It was time to go.

“Guys, let’s go. Start waking.”

It was a calculated risk. I had paid what I thought was asked whether it was fair or right or whatever. I did it because I thought that was required to get out of the situation. But then things started to turn into a place that felt like too much. Extortion is a strong word but I felt like the power dynamic was beginning to put us in a really bad place. The bartenders had seen our wallets with more crisp bills and decided to get a piece. From their minds we were rich, American football players even though we were really just college kids.

“Go go,” I said pushing the two other guys ahead. As I began to walk away, I felt a hand on my shoulder, pulled it off, turned back and shook my head at the bartender. No. This was over.

We walked and walked fast. We got home after what seemed like an eternity. They hadn’t followed us although when I turned back around the bartenders were still urging to security guard to pursue us or do something. The three of us didn’t really speak of what had happened as we walked but we did all agree the next morning that something had gotten lost in the communication when we walked out. A mixture of drinking and language barriers had escalated quickly.

Why I believe Lochte and his teammates

Take a minute to read the great piece of journalism by the USA Today reporter that raises questions on the narrative that came out of the Brazilian police and legal system. Yes four drunk Americans urinated behind a building and tore a sign. That’s all we know for sure. That was stupid. Then guys drew their weapons on them and demanded money. But the situation and argument between them all — we don’t exactly know the story of the confrontation and the words of the only arguably impartial observer leave some doubt on the narrative of “drunk, vandalizing, belligerent swimmers.”

They described it as a robbery because that’s the closest words you can come up with.

Having been in my similar situation a few years back, the power dynamic can change the scene very quickly especially for the victim. You are confused. You are uncertain. And then that turns to you feeling abused and taken advantage of. Maybe you want to yell or lash out at the people in power much like Lochte was accused of doing. Robbed? Strong words. Taken advantage of? Definitely.

People keep asking “why does Lochte keep going on camera and lying? What is wrong with him?” Because their narrative isn’t wrong. Brazil’s police just took control and told a better one.

Depending on how I would have told my story and what I emphasize or not, the situation could sound different each way. I don’t know why I trusted the security guard. Mistake or robbery/extortion? All in how you tell it and what perspective you give. Running after us to charge us for “free” drinks we “bought for the staff” then asking for more? Misunderstanding that escalated with officers? Absolutely. Our group thought we were good when we left. That wasn’t the case so I settled it while an officer stood next to the bartenders. My leverage was nonexistent. Theirs was total.

So yes I do believe the swimmers. They were taken advantage of by security guards. They paid $130 or so for something that was probably well less than that — and did it because guys with badges who weren’t cops were pointing guns at them. By a legal definition, yes that could be robbery. Two security guards showed badges but aren’t cops on duty. They force you do something that you don’t quite understand. You are scared, inebriated and just trying to get home.

Looking back I definitely regret being that drunk in Japan 16 years ago. I regret that we played a game of pretending to be athletes. And yes if our bartenders thought we skipped out on a tab, then I totally apologize. Did we do anything illegal? No. But given the color on that misunderstanding, things escalated and turned ugly for us. And much like the swimmers, a power dynamic tipped against you (and amplified with weapons and badges) makes you feel like you were robbed — you had no choice to do what they asked even if you didn’t think it was fair.

They described it as a robbery because that’s the closest words you can come up with.

And then the scrutiny of the media and a police system that spins the story their way makes you into a big liar and an ugly American.

I just hope the USOC and the executives that are deciding punishments find the full story and realize that there may well be two truths here based on where you sat in the power dynamic. Punish them for being dumb and drunk and putting the US team in a poor light. But filing false police reports or lying? Get the full story and know there are probably two truths that may be lost in translation.

I know I sure do.

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