The whole country is in turmoil over a 55-year-old story. Three days ago privatkopo.hu, a blog specializing in true crime stories, discovered that the highly respected coach of the Hungarian national swimming team, the seventy-five-year-old László Kiss, was sentenced in 1961 to five years, later reduced to three years, for participating in the gang rape of a girl known only as Zsuzsanna. She was eighteen. During the summer when the crime was committed, she was studying for her college entrance exams. The judge found that Kiss and two other star swimmers lured Zsuzsanna into the apartment of one of the boys and gang raped her. Privatkopo.hu cited fairly long passages detailing the brutal act committed by the three swimmers. Kiss received amnesty in March 1963, alongside most of the political prisoners who had been in jail since 1957. All in all, he spent twenty months in jail.
Three years after his release Kiss became the swimming coach of the Budai Spartacus Club, to which both boys and girls belonged. For jobs that involve dealing with minors Hungarians need a “certificate of good behavior,” which in the case of former convicts cannot be obtained until five years after their release. Since Kiss received amnesty and since he was such a good swimmer, I assume he received special dispensation. It is a well-known fact that, especially during the Kádár regime, crack athletes had extraordinary privileges. Another possibility is that he was treated well in exchange for information. Some people, including historians, point out that the Ministry of Interior often made recruiting trips to jails in the hope of signing up agents who would be willing to report on their friends and acquaintances. Those athletes and coaches who were allowed to travel abroad were often used for such purposes.
Of course, all this is just guess work, and at the moment we know very little about the details of Kiss’s release. However, one investigative journalist who read the judge’s opinion indicated today to György Bolgár of Klubrádió that Zsuzsanna’s case was not unique in the lives of Kiss and his two fellow rapists. There was another case which the prosecution had to drop in the absence of conclusive proof. He also indicated that he is not finished with his research, alluding to the fact that more details will be available even about the circumstances of release.
This is exactly what Kiss was trying to prevent when he turned to Attila Péterfalvi, president of the Office of National Data Protection and Freedom of Information, who has begun his own investigation into whether any privacy rights have been transgressed so far by reporting on the court case. He asked the media to stop publishing any more details on the case. I doubt that the journalists will heed Péterfalvi’s request, or at least I would be very surprised if they did.
Since the scandal surfaced, the reaction of the Hungarian Swimming Association has ranged from full support of the beleaguered Kiss to less than forthright statements by both the spokesman of the association and its president, Tamás Gyárfás, especially with regard to how much the present leadership of the association knew about Kiss’s background.
This scandal also exposed some of the practices common in the competitive swimming world. Apparently, the association is still governed in a dictatorial manner, just as it was fifty-five years ago. László Kiss, being the top coach, could decide which athletes would attend important international meets that could decide their futures. A coach from Debrecen who is no friend of Kiss claims that the athletes were actually afraid of Kiss and that swimming coaches in general are a pretty savage lot who occasionally use whips to make sure that the swimmer’s posture is perfect.
Zsolt Bayer, the anti-Semitic writer for Magyar Hírlap, defends Kiss because “Kiss claims the encounter was consensual” and in any case, even if it were true, it can be forgotten due to the tremendous joy Kiss gave Hungarians by coaching youngsters who eventually became Olympic gold medal winners. Even so, Bayer, who as I learned from this article himself swam, tells terrible stories about life as a serious swimmer, especially if the coach was László Kiss. Then “life was even more horrid than usual.” He still feels the leather strap on his thighs. A similar but much more eloquent description of life in the water was offered by a writer and professor of literature, Noémi Kiss, who as a fourteen-year-old trained with the famed Krisztina Egerszegi. Five years ago she talked about her horrid experiences, about the all-pervasive sexuality that exists around the swimming pool and the girls’ vulnerability in these surroundings.
Kiss has resigned his position as coach of the national team. He is no longer deputy mayor and an honorary citizen of Százhalombatta. His name will be removed from the town’s swimming complex. He had to step down from the Hungarian Olympic Committee and thus will lose his 1 million forint a month compensation.
The public is deeply divided on the issue. There are those who think that Kiss’s life after his conviction was untainted, that no complaints were ever filed about his behavior toward his women athletes. The incident occurred such a long time ago that punishment at this stage is meaningless. Then there are a few, like Bayer and István Stefka, another far-right journalist, who either believe that the “gang rape” was actually consensual or that the girl herself was responsible for her fate. According to Stefka, “At the Császár pool, the girls were sitting in the bleachers watching the training and the beefy boys with great interest.” Often these girls initiated sexual relationships, Stefka claims. Unfortunately, Endre Aczél, a talented and knowledgeable journalist whom I hold in high regard, showed his worst side by accusing Zsuzsanna’s parents of making a victim of their over-sexed daughter. Since then Aczél has apologized and taken down his comment from his Facebook page.
And, of course, there are those on the other side who argue that a crime as heinous as a gang rape cannot be forgiven, regardless of the number of gold medals and the fifty-five years. What I think bothers a lot of people is that Kiss, who even wrote an autobiography, never mentioned the time he spent in jail for rape. They are also bothered by Kiss’s attempts to blame the girl, who by now is not even alive and therefore cannot defend herself and her reputation.
I just heard on HírTV that sexual abuse is far too common in competitive swimming. Just in the United States 100 swim coaches have been banned for life from ever coaching. It might be an interesting undertaking to investigate the possible reasons for the prevalence of sexual crimes in the world of swimming. In Hungary there was already one revelation when Nikolett Szepesi came out with a book about “what’s going on around the pool.” I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the Kiss affair, we heard a lot more.