Tag Archives: Katinka Hosszú

The Iron Lady’s business venture and the Orbán government

Aside from a post I wrote about the World Aquatic Championships held past summer in Budapest, I haven’t paid much attention to the affairs of the Hungarian Swimming Association, which for a while was in total turmoil due to the revolt of the swimmers, led by Katinka Hosszú, the star of Hungarian swimming. That revolt ended with a victory for Hosszú, who managed to get rid of Tamás Gyárfás, the long-serving president of the Association.

The storm that Katinka Hosszú created has since subsided, and one hears little about the Hungarian Swimming Association nowadays. On the other hand, there is a lot of news about Katinka Hosszú, and not just because she keeps piling up gold medals all over the world. I’m much more interested in her business venture and how she managed to get the Hungarian government to be her chief sponsor. I find this process especially intriguing because Katinka Hosszú, along with her American husband, has been looked upon as the embodiment of the businesslike American spirit. Coming from an environment where sports are sponsored by large corporations, the Hosszú-Tusup couple defied expectations by ingratiating themselves with the Orbán government, seeking support for their business when Katinka will no longer be able to swim and smash record after record.

The couple has already begun preparing for Katinka’s retirement from swimming. In 2014 they set up the Iron Corporation and called their business venture, a swimming academy, Iron Aquatics. It was named after Hosszú, who calls herself the Iron Lady. Today the Iron Corporation has 30 employees and is profitable.

The problem is that Budapest doesn’t have enough Olympic-size pools for all those athletes who must spend the better portion of their day in the water. And it is here that the Hungarian state comes into the picture.

Shortly after the World Aquatic Championships came to a close, it was reported that Iron Aquatics was renting space from the newly-built Duna Aréna. The internet news site 24.hu has been trying for months to find out how much the Hosszú-Tusup couple is paying for the privilege. Its journalists were sent from pillar to post, but government officials refused to reveal details of the arrangement. About all we know is that it was agreed that Iron Aquatics could use the “teaching pool” of the Duna Aréna even before the building was officially opened. As Hosszú announced on her Facebook page, with access to this swimming pool, Iron Aquatics, in addition to training professional swimmers, can now also teach children how to swim properly. The arrangement most likely is illegal because the Duna Aréna cannot be used for business purposes, and Hosszú’s venture is an obvious business enterprise.

By the way it looks, whatever the arrangement with Duna Aréna is, it is only temporary, until Hosszú has her very own complex on Csillebérc, an area about half the size of Margitsziget (46 hectares), which was used during the Rákosi  and Kádár regimes as a campground for worthy pioneers. The famous narrow-gauge train, maintained by children under adult supervision, can also be found here. The area illegally ended up in private hands, and the Hungarian state waged a legal battle that lasted about 20 years to recover the property. This summer, with no court decision in sight, the government settled with the owners and paid an exorbitant amount of money for a hunting lodge on the property. The government refused to reveal details of the settlement, but according to inside information the government was so eager to start building a swimming center that it paid the owner 1.5 billion forints. This is apparently 26 times more than the lodge is worth.

Headlines like “Katinka Hosszú may get Csillebérc this week” didn’t sound too good, so Tünde Szabó, former silver-medalist Olympic swimmer in 1992 and nowadays undersecretary in charge of sports in the ministry of human resources, explained that it is not Hosszú who is getting a swimming academy. Csillebérc will be one of four training centers the government will build, which will be devoted to producing future champions. She stressed that the academy will be in the hands of the Hungarian state but added that “at the same time, if our successful athletes who became role models want to pass their knowledge to younger generations, the opportunity should be given to them.”

In brief, yes, Hosszú convinced the Orbán government to build a most likely very expensive sports center for Iron Aquatics. On December 28 the government gave its blessing to the creation of all four facilities. We know how much money has been spent on Orbán’s football academy, and there is no question that these four academies are going to be expensive affairs as well. In addition to the swimming academy on Csillebérc, there will be kayak and gymnastic academies in Budapest and a pentathlon academy in Székesfehérvár.

Meanwhile Katinka and her famed coach and husband are having a rough time at home, which is being watched with a certain amount of satisfaction by those who couldn’t stand Shane Tusup, who by all reports is hard to take. He made no secret of his low opinion of the luminaries of the Hungarian swimming scene. Origo has already devoted two long articles to attacking him, and Viktor Orbán’s favorite sports paper, Nemzeti Sport, published an article expressing worries about the future of the “Hosszú-Tusup brand.” The Orbán government is planning to spend billions on a swimming academy and therefore the “Iron Empire” is not in danger, the author of the article says. But what will happen to Katinka?, asks the worried sports writer.

The author of the article is worried about Hosszú as an athlete, but in my opinion Iron Aquatics is in greater danger because, after all, it was Tusup who made Hosszú what she is today. Those parents from all over the world who already envisage their sons and daughters as second Michael Phelpses and Katinka Hosszús might think twice before turning to Iron Aquatics without the famous Shane Tusup.

January 2, 2018

Sports and politics: a football empire and rebellious swimmers

I was pleasantly surprised this morning because, despite the holidays, I found quite a few topics that might interest readers of Hungarian Spectrum. For today’s post I picked two, both having to do with sports and, naturally, politics.

The football empire of Greater Hungary

I had not been aware until now that the Orbán government has been generously supporting football academies outside the borders of the country. The favorite for a long time was the Romanian academy in Csíkszereda/Miercurea Ciuc, where the former mayor Jenő Szász was a political ally of László Kövér and in general a favorite of Fidesz. According to 444.hu, a couple of years ago the Hungarian government gave one billion forints to the Csíkszereda Football Academy. An additional 300 million came from Hungary’s most successful pipefitter, Lőrinc Mészáros, who, in recognition of his generosity, was named an honorary citizen of the city. Apparently, in the final months of 2016 the government gave another billion forints to the Csíkszereda Academy.

Early this year Mészáros also became the “owner” of the NK Osijek (in Hungarian Eszék), Class I football team in eastern Croatia. The Hungarian government was again very generous. One billion forints was given to a center that is supposed feed new talent to the Osijek football team. Naturally, Mészáros’s own firm, Mészáros & Mészáros, is the chief sponsor of the club, but other Hungarian companies favored by the Orbán government also support NK Osijek: TRSZ, Duna Aszfalt, Magyar Épitő, and West Hungária Bau. As Benjamin Novák explains in Budapest Beacon, “a particular corporate tax benefit scheme allows corporations to write off 100 percent of donations made to sport clubs meeting certain criteria.” Transparency International, which investigated the case, “believes such contributions amount to a diversion of corporate taxes from public coffers to private sports clubs, and that for this reason such contributions should technically be regarded as public funds.”

Until now, at least the public could learn the names of the corporations that were generous supporters of Viktor Orbán’s favorite sport. According to the latest plans, however, this information will no longer be available. Business secrets, you know.

NK Osijek’s stadium / Source: Index

The Hungarian government, directly and indirectly, spends an incredible amount of money on football. Just for Christmas, according to the latest government decree, 50 billion forints was poured into the clubs of five spectator sports, most of them, of course, football clubs.

But why is the Hungarian government supporting football academies in the neighboring countries? In addition to Csíkszereda and Osijek, several other football clubs in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Serbia are the beneficiaries of the Hungarian government’s largess. One billion was sent to the football academy in Mukacheve (Munkács), another billion to the football academy in Dunájska Streda (Dunaszerdahely), and three billion to the Délvidék Sport Akadémia in Serbia. (Today’s Voivodina used to be called “Délvidék” or “the southern parts.”)

And why did Mészáros buy a team? A partial answer may be, as Mészáros admitted in a casual conversation with journalists, that the price for Croat and Serb players in the football market is a great deal higher than for those from Hungary.


Right-wing attacks against Katinka Hosszú and her American husband

A month ago I covered the struggle between the Hungarian swimmers and Tamás Gyárfás, then president of the Hungarian Swimming Association (Magyar Úszószövetség/MÚSZ). The swimmers’ case was pressed by Katinka Hosszú, the current star of Hungarian swimming.

Katinka Hosszú was victorious. Once Viktor Orbán made it clear that the upheaval in MÚSZ should cease, Gyárfás knew that he would have to resign. Mind you, although he might be despised by the star swimmers, Gyárfás remains popular with the affiliated club managers. A couple of days ago he received the most nominations for the post of president of MÚSZ, although the chance of his regaining his position is close to nil.

At the end of my post on the storm in the swimming pool, I wrote briefly about Hosszú’s American husband and trainer, Shane Tusup, whom the Hungarian swimming establishment resents. Although he is not an easy man to get along with, I came to the conclusion that this resentment has a lot to do with the fact that Tusup is an American, a foreigner. I recalled a television discussion in which the moderator completely lost his cool and abused Tusup, who thinks he is in Uganda instead of Hungary, which is a powerhouse of aquatic sports. He comes here to teach us?

Since then I have encountered many similar reactions to Tusup and, to some extent, to Hosszú as well. Soon after the world championship (25m) ended in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, an opinion piece appeared in Magyar Idők titled “A strange couple.” At that meet Hosszú received seven gold medals, which should have warmed the hearts of all Hungarian nationalists. But, strangely enough, that was not the case. On the contrary, the author of this particular article tried to minimize the importance of her and her husband’s achievement. The author stressed the prominence of Hungarian swimming ever since Alfréd Hajós received two gold medals at the first 1896 Olympic Games. And, he continued, he hasn’t met any “swimming expert” who would “tip his hat” to Shane Tusup, who is internationally recognized and was named “trainer of the year” three times in a row. The author of the article identifies with Sándor Petőfi, who “admired but didn’t like” mountains as opposed to Hungary’s Great Plains. In fact, the locals hate Tusup with such gusto that the Hungarian Swimming Association neglected to mention his trainer-of-the-year award from FINA, the international federation of aquatic sports.

The latest attack came from an extreme right-wing association called Honfoglalás 2000. Honfoglalás is the official historical name for the arrival of Árpád and his tribes in present-day Hungary. Honfoglalás 2000 is best known for its utter devotion to Russia and to Vladimir Putin. 444.hu has written several articles about this strange group, which thinks so highly of Putin that they suggested he should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. They thanked Putin for occupying Crimea. They demonstrated for the Russian-financed Paks Atomic Power Plant with placards reading “Roszatom: Jó atom!” They demanded that Péter Juhász be taken into custody because, according to them, he called on anarchists to commit disorderly acts. You get the idea.

This group had earlier called on the swimmers “to swim and not engage in political discussions.” Tusup’s name appeared in that statement: “We don’t want America (Shane Tusup) to intervene in our sports; we don’t want to introduce American-style, disgusting election campaign style conditions in Hungary. Hajrá Magyarország, hajrá magyarok!” Orbán finishes all his speeches with this sentence, which means roughly “to the finish Hungary, to the finish Hungarians.”

This time Honfoglalás 2000 is convinced that the storm inside the Hungarian Swimming Association was organized by Shane Tusup, who is purposely creating trouble in Hungarian swimming circles and thus jeopardizing the success of the World Aquatic Championships, which will be held in Budapest next year. The reason for his actions? He wants to make sure that the 2024 Olympic Games will be held in Los Angeles and not in Budapest. “Aggressive American politics by now is attacking Hungary even through sports.” The Hungarian swimmers should realize this and should cooperate with the management of the swimming association for the sake of the success of next year’s games. “Those who are not willing to do so can go, for example, to America where they should compete in Hungarian colors—we don’t hold them back.”

One might ignore all this, arguing that these people belong to the lunatic fringe of Hungarian politics. Unfortunately, my sense is that these sentiments are widely shared by those who follow the affairs of the Hungarian Swimming Association. And their numbers are significant because swimming is one of the two most successful Hungarian sports.

December 27, 2016

Dictatorship in sports: The case of the Hungarian Swimming Association

For a whole week the Hungarian media has been fixated on the renewed controversy between Katinka Hosszú and the Hungarian Swimming Association (Magyar Úszószövetség/MÚSZ). Hosszú is Hungary’s swimming star who at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro won three gold medals, in two events breaking the Olympic record, and one silver medal.

This is not the first time that Katinka Hosszú and Tamás Gyárfás, president of MÚSZ, have clashed over the association’s supervision of Hungarian swimming. In January 2016 the two were at loggerheads over the less than satisfactory conditions under which Hungarian swimmers were forced to prepare for international meets and, of course, for the approaching Olympics.

It was not a coincidence that Hosszú was the first to complain. She was being trained by her husband, the American Shane Tusup, who devised a regimen that, since 2012, had propelled Hosszú to an incredible series of wins. Although the couple has been living in Hungary for the last three years, the association never approached Tusup for any training advice.

In January, when I first wrote about the conflict between Hosszú and Gyárfás, I called it “a clash between the old and the new.” At this time I was referring only to coaching methods and swimming equipment. Today the conflict has widened. It is now between a new generation of athletes and MÚSZ, a typical Hungarian sports association. This new generation of athletes is no longer willing to be at the mercy of the association and its arbitrary distribution of money. Tamás Gyárfás has been president of MÚSZ for the last 23 years and in this capacity he decides how the funds he receives from the government should be spent. He is the final arbiter of everything related to swimming. For example, as Hosszú tells the story, eight years ago Gyárfás told her that she should retire from swimming. At this point Hosszú took her career into her own hands and left for the University of Southern California to get a degree and train there.

Viktor Orbán and Tamás Gyárfás

Viktor Orbán and Tamás Gyárfás as sports diplomats

Tamás Gyárfás most likely unwittingly demonstrated the nature of his relationship with the athletes when last January he publicly aired his disappointment over the fact that his “sweet little Katinka” is no more. In order to be in the good graces of Gyárfás, the athlete, who is totally at his mercy, must remain quiet. But now Gyárfás has to face an “iron lady,” as Hosszú calls herself. I’m certain that the bigwigs at MÚSZ blame this “unfortunate” transformation on her American trainer and husband, a foreigner who wants to tell them what to do and what not to do. The clash was inevitable.

Back in January Viktor Orbán himself asked the two to restrain themselves because, after all, the Olympic Games were approaching. But now, given the size of the revolt, I doubt that Orbán will defend Gyárfás. He may well decide to end Gyárfás’s 23-year career at MÚSZ even though Gyárfás is considered to be the consummate survivor. He was described in an opinion piece that appeared in 168 Óra as a “truly emblematic figure of the muddled decades between Potemkin socialism and trashy capitalism.” In the author’s opinion, the achievements of Hosszú and Tusup are the result of their own talent and hard work. Gyárfás’s talent is merely to make unacceptable compromises in order to survive. “A country that remunerates that kind of talent is hopeless.”

In a way, Gyárfás is responsible for the outbreak of this widespread revolt against not only his position but the institution itself. He gave an interview on November 15 in which he boasted that all is well with MÚSZ and “as far as the relationship between MÚSZ and Hosszú is concerned, all is quiet.” Well, Hosszú made sure that the quiet would not last long. A few hours after the interview appeared she fired back. She pointed out that Gyárfás’s claim that Hungarian swimming “has never been better” is simply untrue. She added that Gyárfás can remain in his position only because “we bring the results.” In her opinion the presence of Gyárfás at the head of MÚSZ is damaging for the sport. She called on him to resign.

This time Hosszú was not alone. She was followed in rapid succession by all the Hungarian swimming medalists in Rio. A day later one of the coaches joined the athletes. By that time they were not satisfied with Gyárfás’s resignation. They also wanted the resignation of András Hargitay, the head coach (szövetségi kapitány) who took over László Kiss’s job after Kiss’s rape case from 60 years ago came to light. Hargitay is a retired swimmer from the 1970s who has no coaching experience. Index described him as “Gyárfás’s creation.” Attila Czene, a gold medal winner at the Atlanta Olympics who later served as undersecretary responsible for sports, called MÚSZ a dictatorship and said that “this was the situation already in our time,” meaning the 1990s.

A few words about Shane Tusup’s role in this affair. The Hungarian swimming establishment greatly resents him. Admittedly, he is not an easy man to get along with, but the other day I came to the realization that the fact that he is not a Hungarian may go a long way toward explaining this resentment. I base this on the intemperate reaction of Henrik Havas, a reporter ever since the late 1970s, who moderates a weekly news roundtable on ATV. The most recent show aired on Saturday night and, among other topics, dealt with the storm swirling around MÚSZ. It was during that discussion that Havas lashed out against Tusup. What does this man think? Did he think he was going to Uganda instead of Hungary? Hungary is a powerhouse of aquatic sports. He comes here to teach us? Havas continued in this vein without allowing his guests to say a word. When he was finished with his harangue he abruptly asserted: “let’s move on.” Some of the problems Hosszú and Tusup are facing are not of their own making.

The animosity against Tusup leads me to recent findings documenting the general xenophobia that exists in Hungary. Both Tárki and Závecz came out with their latest polls only a few days ago and found that the fear and hatred of foreigners has never been higher in the country. To the question “If someone asked your opinion whether you would consent to a neighbor who is….” incredible results emerged. Arabs (with a 21% acceptable neighbor rating) are more hated today than Gypsies (32%). Even Christian Syrians are taboo (35%). But don’t think that Americans are much better off: only 50% of Hungarians wouldn’t mind having an American neighbor. They would be even happier with a rock musician (60%).

November 21, 2016

The Hungarian swimming team at the Olympic Games

I must say that I have a great deal less enthusiasm for the Olympic Games today than a few decades ago when for two solid weeks I watched the games practically all day long. The scandals surrounding competitive sports, from sexual molestation to brutal training methods (here I’m thinking of Tamás Széchy, the famed coach who put Hungarian swimming on the map) to performance enhancing drugs, have tainted the games for me.

The recent discovery of the rape case against the young László Kiss (now 75), who until a few months ago was the premier coach of the Hungarian national team, shook the swimming establishment, which was already having a rough time as a result of the clash between Katinka Hosszú, the “iron lady,” and the Magyar Úszószövetség (Hungarian Swimming Association). I wrote about the clash at some length in a post published in January 2016. Hosszú and her American-born coach and husband Shane Tusup, after training in Hungary for three years, decided that they had had enough of the inadequate facilities and outmoded training methods available in Hungary. They had tried to convince the swimming authorities to make changes, to no avail. In that post I described Hosszú’s “revolt” as “a clash between the old and the new” and not a spoiled prima donna’s outburst and outrageous demands. It seems that I may have been right because all the big-name stars of Hungarian swimming, with the exception of Hosszú, bombed in Rio. I’m talking about people like László Cseh, Dániel Gyurta, Dávid and Evelyn Verrasztó, and Éva Risztov.

Here is a recap of the performance of those Hungarian swimmers whom Origo described as the big guns. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was László Cseh (31), whose great ambition was to beat Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly. He was second to Phelps in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Last year at the 2015 Aquatic Championships, Cseh won a gold medal in the 200m butterfly ahead of Chad le Clos, the nemesis of Phelps at this year’s Olympics. After swimming well in the semifinals, he ended up seventh when it counted. On the other hand, a promising Hungarian swimmer, the 19-year-old Tamás Kenderesi, who didn’t train with the big guns, received the bronze medal in the event.

Mark Phelps and László Cseh after it is all over

Mark Phelps and László Cseh after it’s all over

Or there is Dániel Gyurta (27), who as a 15-year-old won a silver medal in the men’s 200m breaststroke at the 2004 Summer Olympics. In 2012 in London he won the gold medal and set a new world record in the event. In Rio he ended up sixteenth in the 100m and seventeenth in the 200m.

The story of the Verrasztó siblings is not pretty either. Dávid Verrasztó (28), after ending up twelfth in the heats for the 400m individual medley, packed up and left for home. He was a no-show for the 200m individual medley. The same Verrasztó received the gold medal in the 400m medley in the 2016 European Championships in London. His sister Evelyn (27) ended up twenty-eighth in the 200m freestyle. In the 2016 European Championships she received gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay. Although she was supposed to swim the first leg of the 4x200m freestyle relay in Rio, a team event that will include Hosszú, she also packed up and left.

And finally there is Éva Risztov (31), several times European champion and gold medal winner at the 2012 London Olympics. She ended up #14 in the 800m freestyle.

I should mention a lesser light, Boglárka Kapás (23), who swims tonight in the 800m freestyle. In the heats she was second, seven seconds behind Katie Ledecky.

Then there is the disqualification of five Hungarian swimmers from the games. Here’s what happened. A new FINA bylaw states the “all swimmers brought to the Games for relays must actually compete” for a medal. Tamás Gyárfás, president of the Hungarian Swimming Association, claims that the rule was badly worded, and therefore he is appealing the judgment. Others, however, for example one of the vice-presidents, state that they understood the rule and were planning to use the five swimmers in the semi-finals, but on the spot plans changed. Whatever the case, this is not a pretty story.

According to some people in the know, there is a simple explanation for why this “misunderstanding” happened. This year’s Hungarian swim team was the biggest of all time. Thirty-six swimmers traveled to Rio. The members of the relay teams, five men in all, were added because in this way more coaches could be included in the group. Of course, it is possible that this interpretation of what happened has no basis in fact whatsoever, but there is always the suspicion that the Hungarians tried to fool FINA.

As people speculate about the secret of Katinka Hosszú’s success (the speculations naturally include performance enhancing drugs and her allegedly abusive husband-coach), many “experts” are coming to the conclusion that Hosszú was most likely right: there is something wrong with the training as well as the state of Hungarian swimming facilities, which apparently are falling apart. In the cases of Cseh, Gyurta and the Verrasztó siblings, perhaps psychological preparedness is what was missing. András Hargitay, the chief coach, also suspects that his swimmers’ complete collapse at such weighty meets as the Olympic Games is due to psychological factors. It is of little consolation that, as Hargitay told Origo, “at home during training [both Gyurta and Cseh] can produce times with which they could easily get gold medals at the Olympics.” Training times don’t count.

What is missing perhaps, in addition to modern training methods and state-of-the-art facilities, is participation in frequent international meets. Hosszú, in contrast to her fellow Hungarian swimmers, entered every possible meet all over the world prior to the Olympics and thereby acquired a more relaxed attitude toward competition. The chief coach of the Hungarian swim team, however, still doesn’t see Hosszú’s strategy as a partial remedy for the uptight Hungarian swimmers. He believes that Hosszú’s success is due to the fact that her coach is her husband, which is a very special relationship that cannot be replicated by others.

I have the feeling that once this Olympic Games is over there will be plenty of soul searching in the Hungarian Swimming Association and a lot of blame leveled against the present leadership.

August 11, 2016

János Széky on secrets of the past well kept

I’m  pleased to be able to publish this essay by János Széky, whose writings on politics I have admired for years. János Széky is a man of many talents. He was originally known for his translations of the works of such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Mary Renault, Nathanael West, and Norman Mailer. Around 2006 he began writing on politics. He has a regular column in Élet és Irodalom, but one also finds his articles in several other highly respected publications. Last year he published his collected essays on politics that had originally appeared on Paraméter, a Hungarian-language internet site from Slovakia. It was titled Bárányvakság: Hogyan lett ilyen Magyarország? “Bárányvakság” is the Hungarian equivalent of Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a rare eye disease that results in blindness (“vakság”). “Bárány” when it stands alone means sheep or lamb. This compound word gives us a fair idea of what Széky had in mind when he opted for this title.

♦ ♦ ♦

baranyvaksagThe story of a veteran swimming coach and a retired industrial manager enthralled the Hungarian public for five full weeks through April and May, overshadowing more direct and more important political issues. There have been some aftershocks since, but basically the case is closed by now, so we can draw the conclusions with a measure of confidence. While the story and the response was emblematic and even politically relevant in several ways, it seems difficult to explain the backgrounds to anyone who is not intimate with the depths of the Hungarian national psyche. I will try.

On April 5, 2016 two obscure, sub-tabloid websites, specializing in sensational crime stories, broke the news that László Kiss, 75, head coach (official title: “Federal Captain”) of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, had raped a young girl in a backroom (a “service apartment”) of the National Sports Swimming Pool in 1961. He and his two associates were finally convicted in 1962, and released from prison in 1963.

Thirty-six days passed, then on May 11 Kiss, who had by then resigned from captaincy, met his victim, Zsuzsanna Takáts, 73, in the office of the latter’s lawyer. There, in front of the cameras of Hungary’s largest TV channel, he presented her a bouquet of flowers, asking for, and being given, forgiveness. (But, as Ms. Takáts remarked later, forgetting would be more difficult.)

What took place between the two dates was a real drama, full of mysteries, twists and turns. A huge public debate arose. What made it all the more strange was that the usual dividing lines were blurred; defenders and attackers of Kiss came from both the government’s and the opposition’s side. Not even gender solidarity mattered, as in the social media some liberal-minded women stood up for Kiss, only to be reprimanded by men from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

So why was it so important? Why was it political after all? How come it became news again, 54 years after the court’s judgment was made public? Why did it end more or less abruptly with such a theatrical gesture, while many of the details remained uncovered?

A nation of Olympic addicts

First of all, Kiss is not just a successful swimming coach. His name was largely unknown even among sports fans until late September 1988, when at the Seoul Olympics his trainee Krisztina Egerszegi won the 200 meters backstroke. It was a symbolic moment: the 14-year-old, small and slender Hungarian girl, nicknamed “Egérke” (Little Mouse), beat the wardrobe-sized East German swimmers almost effortlessly (back then, it was only rumored that they had been pumped up on steroids under State Security supervision). Watching television, or listening to the radio commentator’s ecstatic cries: “There’s no such thing! And still there is!,” we all saw it as a triumph of sheer Hungarian talent, charm, and ingenuity over raw Teutonic physical power in the obedient service of a hardline dictatorship.

Note the date: September 25, 1988. Glasnost and perestroika were in full swing in the Soviet Union, but the East European revolutions were still a year away. Hungary was considered a model state in the region, way ahead of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The institutional and legal foundations of market economy had already been laid. Relations with the West were excellent. The Young Turks of the communist party had already got rid of the old dictator János Kádár. Although most of them wanted to stop democratization before one-party rule was threatened, for many outsiders it was clear they had reached a point of no return (Fidesz, e.g., had already been formed by that time as an independent youth organization). “We are the best around” was the national feeling, and the unexpected victory in Seoul seemed to be a spectacular proof.

It was all about something deeper, however. Ever since the late nineteenth century Hungarians have been obsessed with success in sports, especially at the Olympic Games. First, while the Kingdom of Hungary was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, we had our separate national teams. So the purpose was to show that we are a separate nation, fit for the world’s stage after all the troubles. Later, after the disaster of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the successive governments, whether authoritarian or totalitarian, used Olympic successes as tools of national-collectivist propaganda to compensate for national humiliation, or lack of liberty, or relative poverty, or all of them. There has been no exception even through the democratic period, so the Hungarian public has internalized it, and found it only natural that we are more successful in Olympic sports than larger, more powerful, or more prosperous nations. There are only a few global lists in which Hungary is near the top (such as tax level or Nobel laureates per capita, at least when country of origin is concerned), but “Olympic gold medals per million people” is the most prominent among them. Here Hungary is an all-time second. And although there are some traditional specialties like fencing or kayak and canoe, nowadays swimming is the only “big sport” (attracting media attention and therefore much money) in which Hungary can still produce world stars.

Out of prison, back to the elite

So one of the first responses to the revelation was that evil and unpatriotic forces wanted to sabotage our swimmers’ successes in Rio. The reason why it was not the only immediate response as would have been natural in such cases was threefold.

First: Many people interpreted it as a covert attack against Tamás Gyárfás, chairman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, whom no one actually likes, and many people would like to see resign. So, unlike in other scandals concerning revered celebrities, a large part of the public tended to give some credit to the news from the very first moment. Second: Kiss’s status had already been weakened somewhat when Katinka Hosszú, the biggest star in Hungarian swimming, and her American husband/coach Shane Tusup humiliated him last January. At a press conference she publicly refused Gyárfás’s offer of c. $45,000 in exchange for taking part in the 2017 World Championship’s publicity campaign. She tore the contract in two and denounced the HSF for providing pitiful Stone Age training conditions to swimmers. Kiss tried to approach her to say some conciliatory words or to ask for an explanation, but Tusup dragged her away before the head coach could reach her. Later it was said that Hosszú would never listen or talk to Kiss during the previous weeks (no one knew exactly why). Kiss resigned immediately (recently there have been hints that he was aware of the danger looming ahead, so this could have been a convenient way of leaving the public stage), but Viktor Orbán himself persuaded him to stay. So he revoked his resignation – for the time being.

Finally, public opinion was divided from the very first moment because it had been sensitized to the issue of poolside sexual offenses by a best-selling book in 2013, in which former swimming champion Nikolett Szepesi described how at the age of 13 she, as well as other young girls, were molested by a masseur, and forced to keep silence by people around the HSF. So when the news broke about Kiss, a lot of people’s automatic first reaction was, “How could they allow this man to work with underage girls?”

Pieces of additional information and disinformation emerged immediately. It “became known” that the victim had died some time ago; that her father was a high-ranking state security officer, otherwise the three young men would not have been sentenced (all false). Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist very popular among left-wing audiences, said he knew the case, and the three young swimmers were handsome, easy-going Lotharios (kind of true), while the girl “just liked to screw around” (false), there was no rape (false), and the young men were framed (false). Aczél had been a regular contributor to Hungary’s largest political daily Népszabadság for 25 years; after this blatant example of sexist victim-blaming they would not hear of him any more.

At least one newspaper acquired the documents of the trial from the archives and began to leak out reliable information in small doses, until Attila Péterfalvi, chairman of the National Authority of Data Protection and Freedom of Information, blocked access to the archived and hitherto public documents, using a legal loophole. It was not clear whose data he wanted to protect.

There were some obvious signs of manipulation. People from the Olympic swimming community said that “in the world of the pools everybody knew,” but would not say why they never shared this knowledge with the wider public. Websites published photocopies of the Hungarian Telegraph Agency’s report on the 1962 judgments, and even an AP report that reached the American press. Kiss’s defenders said this was evidence that nothing had been secret about it. What the defenders deliberately ignored was the fact that this happened in 1961-62, when there was no Internet with search engines, so if one did not remember a two-inch story from the back pages of a newspaper, they could only go to a library to find the piece in the back copies; but if they did not remember, they did not know what to look for in the first place.

Moreover, it happened in communist Hungary, where there was no press freedom. So, on the one hand, the press did not cover the truth or everything that could have been interesting for the general public. (Two of the most notorious but unreported sex scandals of the age involved actors, who were not sent to prison, just disappeared from Budapest theatres for a while, and there was nothing about the real background in the newspapers.) On the other hand, it was unimaginable that a journalist would follow the trail of someone sent to prison without a directive coming “from above.” So what the authorities did was simply unremembering the case: never talking about it again, so everybody duly forgot it who was not “in” on it.

Kiss served 20 months in prison, but this fact was obliterated from the known universe. It was not included in Ki kicsoda, the Hungarian version of Who’s Who, where they (that is, he) falsified the facts and “pasted over” the prison term, saying he was an athlete of Ferencvárosi Torna Club until 1961, and in 1962 switched to another club called Budapesti Spartacus; while in reality he was expelled from Ferencváros in 1961 and was released from prison only in 1963 (at least if that piece of information is true). It was not included in the Wikipedia article nor in his professional biography (Csurka, Gergely, Az edzőfejedelem [The Prince of Coaches], Ringier, Budapest, 2012; the author is now the spokesman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation). When the scandal broke, Gyárfás was ridiculed for triumphantly saying that it was not a secret, “anyone can read it on Wikipedia.” In fact, the text of the article had been edited earlier that day.

There was also confusion about the circumstances of Kiss’s release. In his own version, he was set free with the sweeping Great Amnesty. This was proclaimed in March (officially April) 1963, after secret talks with the U.S. State Department, and resulted in setting free many people imprisoned for taking part in the revolution of 1956. The Hungarian communist authorities did not want it to look like a political retreat, so they extended the amnesty to many non-political criminals who served lighter sentences. Kiss was sentenced to three years at the second instance; he was incarcerated in October 1961; by the amnesty order he should have been released after two years, in October 1963. He won, however, the bronze medal in 200 meters butterfly stroke at the National Championship that year, which was held in late summer. So, counting in the training period, he must have been released several months before October. He himself said he spent 20 months in prison; that would have ended in June. So either there was some other intervention on his behalf, or Kiss lied.

It was a living legend, Éva Székely, Olympic champion at Helsinki, the pioneer of the butterfly stroke, who gave the key to this riddle. She said now that she had wanted to take “this talented boy” out of prison, so she went to a very high-ranking party functionary and asked for his release. That functionary was most probably Béla Biszku, who died six days before this scandal broke out. He was the last surviving member of Kádár’s original junta, overseeing state security as well as prisons – and sports. So what Székely herself revealed was nothing less than that she had facilitated the extralegal release of a condemned rapist by using her own prestige, and asking one of the most hated figures of the communist dictatorship for a favor. In any democracy, such a revelation would have ruined her morally overnight. But as it happened in Hungary, no such response came. This is a perfect illustration of three specific features of Hungarian political thinking: nationalist emotions can override all other considerations such as the issue of dictatorship v. democracy; some people, including star athletes, are not just privileged but beyond any political, legal, or moral scrutiny; and finally, these conditions have not changed a bit since 1963.

That Kiss could continue where he had left off in1961 meant that he was not simply released as early as possible, but that he was immediately retaken to the ranks of a privileged elite within the party-state. Meanwhile, the heroes and legends of 1956 were confined to low-paid, menial jobs. (If they could find a job at all.) In 1965 Kiss quit competitive swimming and became the head coach of Spartacus. The next year he was “given individual pardon” by the Hungarian Presidential Council, which meant a clean criminal record, and being eligible for a “service passport”, which meant he could visit most countries in the world anytime, expenses covered. This at a time when ordinary citizens could travel to the West every third year; and for spending money they were allowed to buy a mere 70 dollars high above the official exchange rate – that is, if their request for a passport was not refused for being “harmful to public interest,” as was the norm for people with a 1956 background.

Dark non-secrets

The main argument of the defense of Kiss was that he “created something unique,” with which he more than atoned for his crime. This was not true for two reasons. On the one hand, there was nothing special about him for 18 years after his release, until he had the luck of meeting a really unique talent in the person of seven-year-old Egerszegi. On the other hand, the method which created world and Olympic champions out of teenagers was not his invention. The merit belonged Tamás Széchy (1931-2004), who, from 1967 on, began to train young boys (many of them under the age of ten) with sadistic brutality. Apart from the extraordinarily heavy training load, he kicked them, beat them with bare hands and a massive stick, humiliated them, and abused them verbally. The children were too young to protest (and did not know it was abnormal in the first place), while the parents approved, partly because the atmosphere in many families was just as authoritarian, partly because they saw it as a way to fame and national glory, and partly because in the world of “socialist” sports, the success of the minors meant privileges and material rewards for the parents as well. And the results duly came: after a long slump between 1952 and 1973, one of Széchy’s trainees, 17-year-old András Hargitay, won a gold medal at the first World Swimming Championship in Belgrade.

What Kiss and other second-rank coaches did was to stick to the inhuman training load without Széchy’s sadistic antics (for which today he would be put in prison), while still retaining much of the original abuse of power, though “mildly” enough by now to apply to girls as well. Until 1988, however, Széchy was the swimming coach in the eyes of the public (who knew nothing about his methods), and many people were just surprised that there was another successful coach around. It had the overtones of dethronement.

The day after the old story came to light, on April 7, the Presidency and the Trainers’ Commission of the HSF unanimously voted for the Federal Captain to stay. While sticking to the “crime-punishment-redemption” theme (“I was given a chance, and I used it,” referring to his later successes as a coach), Kiss himself also suggested that he had been framed. On the next day, however, he resigned not only from the captainship but from his position of deputy mayor in the city of Százhalombatta as well (the local swimming pool was also named after him). This was preceded by a large sponsor withdrawing its support from HSF and also criticism from the local government of Százhalombatta, which happens to be dominated by Fidesz. The debate cut across political lines. The “swimming profession” rallying to his defense was not enough. The original websites which disclosed the news also promised new pieces of information, not too subtly hinting at Kiss’s alleged involvement with State Security (while they themselves have been accused of the same). This is another Hungarian specialty: as there has been no thorough State Security lustration like in Czechia, Slovakia, or Germany, and “the public’s right to know” has been largely denied in these issues, there seems to be (or by all signs there is), a large blackmail database 26 years after the demise of the communist régime, out of which compromising facts can be culled whenever it is profitable for its users.

Kiss also announced that he would seek a retrial, so as to clear his name. This is one of the more obscure chapters of the story. Everybody could have told him his chances were less than slight. Who on earth could have advised him to do such a thing, and why? Kiss seems to have been certain that the victim had died, but who could have told him that?

The scandal dragged on. Apart from moral and gender issues, the debate revolved around Endre Aczél’s victim-blaming version (showing that the Hungarian public is much more liberal, after all, than politicians like to think) and also around the theory that the real target was Tamás Gyárfás, the chairman of HSF. Gyárfás is something of an anomaly in the Fidesz system. Originally a sports journalist, in 1989 he started a media company to sponsor a morning political magazine within the state television’s program. The money came from a businessman György Bodnár, returning from the U.S. to Hungary, whom Gyárfás met during his stay in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games (which Hungary, as well as all Warsaw Pact countries except Romania, boycotted). Bodnár served some time in prison in the U.S. in the 1970s. When in 1994 the weekly magazine HVG asked if he had some ties to the Los Angeles Hungarian Mafia, he said he had no knowledge “of any serious Hungarian group of organized crime operating there.” (It is clear that this network consisted of criminals exported from Hungary from the late 1960s on; and, of course, it had State Security ties.) But that’s another far-reaching story. Anyway, though Gyárfás himself never belonged to the ranks of real oligarchs, his morning magazine Nap-Kelte (‘Sun-Rise’) survived all governments in spite of its definitely left-wing orientation and shabby production, even after Fidesz decided to boycott it in late 2006. It finally ceased to exist in September 2009, half a year before the all-important 2010 elections.

Meanwhile, Gyárfás became one of Hungary’s most important sports officials. He was elected to be chairman of HSF in 1993, and in 2006 he even tried to grab the presidency of the Hungarian Olympic Committee from Pál Schmitt, who was Fidesz’s vice-president back then and later became President of Hungary. (Rumors say the boycott of Nap-Kelte was Fidesz’s revenge for the HOC coup attempt.) And Gyárfás is still in the position now, a year before the 2017 World Aquatic Championships, which involves a $320 million investment. With that much money around, and Fidesz politicians and cronies literally occupying all the important federations and clubs, it would only be logical if Fidesz wanted to get rid of Gyárfás, whom, for some reason, no one has been able to remove from his throne at HSF yet.

Plus ça change…

It looked like another Hungarian scandal that would die off after much excitement, when finally, on May 7, a bombshell was dropped. The victim, who was alive after all, got fed up with the lies, and with her lawyer she approached a reporter from Fókusz, a very popular news magazine program at RTL Klub.

In a harrowing interview Zsuzsanna Takáts, now a retired engineer/manager and a grandmother, recounted how 55 years ago, at 18, she was raped by the three young men taking turns. It turned out that the details were just the opposite of what was spread around. She was not a sex-crazed swimmer who “loved to screw” but a 7-stone, “underdeveloped,” performance-conscious young girl under strict family control, preparing for her university entrance exams. After the acts, during which she lost consciousness, she was told to “wash herself” with diluted vinegar. At that time she was so inexperienced that she did not realize what it was good for. Her stepfather was not a high-ranking State Security officer but a self-employed shoemaker (small entrepreneurship with fewer than ten employees was tolerated; in the economy of shortage, some of these people were quite well off, but politically they were pariahs). Instead of the powerful father moving in to punish the “Lotharios,” somebody first tried to bribe him to withdraw the accusation, and when he refused, unidentified persons beat him up. He responded stoically: it was part of the game, he said, and would not back down. It took several years for Ms. Takáts to recover mentally and physically. Later, when he saw Kiss’s successes, it was as if Kiss was a complete stranger to her.

When Kiss got news of the interview beforehand, he still said it would finally prove him innocent. By that time he had hired one of the most prestigious lawyers in Hungary, Dr. János Bánáti, chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Lawyers. Dr. Bánáti read through the documents of the original trial, watched Fókusz, and the next thing we know is that Kiss made a complete reversal: he apologized, announced that he would not push for a retrial any more, and withdrew all his claims. His name was taken off the Százhalombatta swimming pool, and he said he wanted to spend as much time as possible with his grandchildren. We cannot know whether decency, painfully missing from several episodes of this story, had finally prevailed, or if Dr. Bánáti had persuaded him to act decently after all, or if he found some details in the documents which made it advisable to forget the case as quickly as possible. RTL Klub also showed the scene with the flowers, which some people found insincere, but at least it was back to what we call European norms and normalcy.

The lesson of the story? While some things have changed for the better in Hungary since 1961, some have not changed at all. In that respect, 1989 was not a watershed. Nowadays the public is much more sensitive to any kind of violence – against women, against children. And, what had been unimaginable until this scandal broke out, people would say they don’t want Olympic gold medals at such a price. Still, it was shocking to learn that those who enjoyed undeserved privileges before 1989 would be protected well after the transition; that information deliberately withheld until 1989 could be withheld until 2016 too. In other words, to learn how much of the communist past is alive and kicking in the form of well-guarded secrets and uncontested false values. This time pure chance helped us. If the sub-tabloid website were better off financially, or if Kiss and Aczél were more decent and did not insult the victim, we would never know what Kiss did in 1961 and how it was hushed up for more than fifty years. But knowing that now, we might never know how many similarly hushed-up stories are out there in the real Hungarian universe.

May 24, 2016

Storm in the swimming pool? No, a clash between the old and the new

The Hungarian media is chock-full of stories about Katinka Hosszú, one of Hungary’s swimming stars and an excellent businesswoman, who advertises herself as the “Iron Lady.” Hosszú became a professional athlete in the last couple of years and amassed a considerable amount of money. But she created a scandal only eight months before the Olympics when she decided to complain openly about the poor conditions which, in her opinion, exist in Hungary for the first-rate swimmers the country has produced in the last few years. As a result of her outburst, Hungary’s swimming world is in turmoil.

Hosszú is no youngster. She is a twenty-six-year-old who began her career in 2003. Her name became internationally known, however, only in 2009 at the World Championship in Rome, a year after she moved to the United States to study and swim at the University of Southern California. Her coach for four years was David Salo, the head swimming coach at USC. Since then she has been a world champion five times in the 400 and 200 meter medley and a European champion in medley, free style, butterfly, and backstroke, just to mention a few of her accomplishments.

You may have noticed that a win at the 2012 Olympics is sorely missing from her awards. In the 2012 London Olympics she didn’t manage to get a medal of any kind. It was at that point that she switched coaches, replacing David Salo with Shane Tusup, whom she married a year later. They settled in Budapest to train for the Olympics. I don’t know what Shane Tusup’s secret is, but from that point on Hosszú has had a phenomenal career.

In an interview Tusup stressed how important the forthcoming Olympics is to both him and his wife. “Post London 2012 we created a four-year plan to head toward Rio 2016, and this year was what I was considering a test year. Katinka and I both sat down to design a brand new program based on what we thought was important and what was not important.”

After three years in Budapest, Tusup and Hosszú decided that they had had enough. Apparently they have been trying to convince the Hungarian Swimming Association (Magyar Úszószövetség / MÚSZ) to adopt more modern techniques and to provide state-of-the-art equipment, to no avail. Hosszú called a press conference where she explained her grievances, after which a huge debate began over whether she is just a spoiled prima donna or whether her complaints are legitimate. Suddenly everybody is a swimming expert.

The older generation, even among Hungarian swimming coaches, think that all those extras, like ice tubs and warming pools, are useless. It is enough just to swim a lot. In addition to these traditionalists, some people resent the American Tusup who dares to tell the locals what to do. Tusup has only one trainee, Hosszú. Obviously, the rest of the first-class swimmers are satisfied with their coach, László Kiss, who by now is 75 years old and perhaps not as open to the many innovations introduced in the sport in the past few years. The question of money also has entered the discussion, but I think that a clash of cultures is at the heart of the feud.

Although Tamás Gyárfás, president of MÚSZ, acts as if he has no idea what is bothering Hosszú because, according to him, MÚSZ provided her with everything she demanded, the facts tell a different story. László Kiss, the regular coach, complained months ago about the lack of available pools for practice. In September 2015, of the six Olympic-size pools in Budapest only two were available to the athletes. Kiss announced that the situation was desperate and that it may influence the outcome of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Hosszú, who was accustomed to better circumstances, apparently has been complaining ever since her return to Budapest from California. She wanted a room of her own, a masseur, an ice bath (used to alleviate inflammation as a result of muscle injury), warming-up tubs, underwater cameras, and software analyzing style and effectiveness. Apparently, after a lot of badgering the cameras have been ordered but not yet installed. The swimmer complains that even the starting blocks that are used in Hungary are not the the same as those that will be used in Rio or at other international events. And having the right kind of starting block is essential: complicated mathematical formulas prove the effectiveness of certain types of blocks.

Starting blocks

Starting blocks

Meanwhile Tusup has his own problems. The locals seems to resent his “interference” and, instead of using his obviously successful techniques, they shun him. Especially Károly Güttler (47), who received a silver medal in the 100 and 200 m. breaststroke in Sydney in 2000 and is now an assistant coach. He is very old-fashioned. According to him, “none of this fancy stuff” is necessary to produce good swimmers.

There are others, like József Ruza, former secretary-general of MÚSZ, who think otherwise. He recalls that years ago foreigners were surprised that the Hungarian swimmers showed up at international meets without a staff. He thinks that Tusup’s talents should be utilized and his methods should be incorporated into the training of the country’s talented swimmers.

Some observers who are not necessarily professionals in the sport look at the rift between Gyárfás, president of MÚSZ, and Hosszú as a clash of cultures but from a slightly different angle from mine. A journalist writing in Gépnarancs quotes Gyárfás as saying “I would like my sweet little Katinka back,” on the basis of which he comes to the conclusion that Hungarian culture doesn’t tolerate the kind of criticism Hosszú levelled against MÚSZ, especially if it comes from a woman. And where women aren’t the only ones who don’t have decent treatment; men don’t either. Both should remain quiet and hope for the best.

And indeed, all the other greats refused to side with Katinka Hosszú, with the exception of Éva Székely, gold medalist at the 1952 Olympics who held the world record in the 400 m. individual medley in 1953. Today, at the age of 89, she claims that the athlete is always right. “Katinka’s job is to swim and win while the association’s is to provide all the help to the athlete…. This girl is a world-class swimmer, and in her place I wouldn’t have bothered to argue with the association.”

Katinka Hosszú insists that she will swim as a member of the Hungarian team although some of her compatriots would gladly send her back to the United States. One bright commentator to HVG’s article said: “Katinka is right, but that Tusup or whatever his name is shouldn’t sound off. If we need advice from America we will let him know.”