Tag Archives: Tamás Gyárfás

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

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.

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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

Scandal in the Hungarian Swimming Association

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.

Here the Hungarian Swimming Association supported Kiss (left) and Tamás Gyárfás / Source: blikk.hu

Kiss (left) and Tamás Gyárfás / Source: blikk.hu

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.

April 8, 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.”

World Aquatics Championship in 2017 with an eye toward hosting the Olympics in 2024

Writing posts for Hungarian Spectrum is a constant learning process. For example, what did I know about FINA’s World Aquatics Championships? Nothing, but now that Hungary foolishly offered to hold it in two years’ time I had to learn something about them in a great hurry. These world championships have been held every two years since 1972. The aquatic sports that are included are swimming, diving, open water swimming, synchronized swimming, and water polo. Hungary happens to be very competitive in aquatic sports, in seventh place in the all-time medal count, after the United States, China, Russia/Soviet Union, Australia, East Germany, and West Germany/Germany.

The aquatic world championships were held in Barcelona in 2013 and this year in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. Hungary was slated to hold the games in 2021, but in February of this year “a fantastic opportunity” presented itself. The Mexican city of Guadalajara decided that, for economic reasons, it would not be able to host the games in 2017. Surely, that came as an unpleasant surprise to FINA, the international governing body of aquatic sports. FINA’s president, Cornel Marculescu, asked Budapest whether they would be willing to switch. Tamás Gyárfás, who has been the president of the Hungarian Swimming Association since 1993, tried to sound cautious, but he was obviously excited about the prospect. The question was whether Viktor Orbán could be persuaded to spend large sums of money on the projects that had to be built in record time.

In less than three weeks, on March 11, 2015, Orbán and Marculescu signed the agreement. The eagerness of the prime minister might have something to do with Gyárfás’s clever pitch. It looks as if he sold Orbán on the idea by pointing out that if Hungary organizes a successful aquatic world championship in 2017, this might tip the scale in Hungary’s favor in its bid to hold the 2024 Olympics in Hungary. Such an argument most likely made an impression on Orbán, who has been dreaming about hosting the Olympic games in Budapest for at least fifteen years and would dearly love to do so while he is still prime minister of Hungary. And the clock is ticking down on his self-projected 20-year rule.

President Cornel Marculescu of FINA and Viktor Orbán, March 11, 2015

President Cornel Marculescu of FINA and Viktor Orbán, March 11, 2015

Gyárfás’s original figure for the project was 23 billion forints, which sounded low. And, indeed, it was. In mid-May Magyar Közlöny, the official government gazette, revealed that the government had put aside about 50 billion forints for the project for the next three years. As usual, government members came up with conflicting explanations for the discrepancy, which confused Hungarian journalists. In the end, it turned out that the original 23 billion figure will cover only the new swimming center that will be built where the Dagály Bath is currently situated, in a not so elegant section of the city. In addition, an incredible number of other projects will have to be completed before the world championships of 2017 can be held.

The vastness of this enterprise can be gleaned from an interview with Tamás Gyárfás, in which he gives a partial list of requirements for holding the games. There will be at least two centers of activities, one where the Dagály Bath is now and the other on Margit Sziget (Margaret Island). The competitors will have to be transported between the two locations, either by bus or perhaps by small boats on the Danube. The road where the Dagály Bath is located is in terrible shape. It has to be fixed. It turns out that the city also needs a building where the wares of hundreds of companies that manufacture sports items can be displayed. He also talked about a road between the metro station and the swimming complex. In addition, a pedestrian bridge will be built between the Dagály complex and Margit Sziget. But that’s not all. Margit Sziget also has to be fixed up. There are a couple of eyesores there: neglected tennis courts and buildings. They are thinking of having a “panorama restaurant” on top of the swimming complex. Yes, this would raise the costs by 1-2%, but in Gyárfás’s opinion it will become the favorite place in the capital. And let’s not forget about Balatonfüred where “at least one new center is needed” which later could be used as a conference center. The list seems endless.

Viktor Orbán’s latest foray into the world of sports has already drawn criticism even though work on the projects hasn’t yet begun. The organizers ordered a video with a song celebrating the event which turned out to be more about Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz politicians than about the swimmers. In the three-minute video Viktor Orbán appears nine times, Lajos Kósa, seven, Tamás Gyárfás six, and Zsolt Borkai, president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, three. Among the many famous Hungarian swimmers, only Katina Hosszú and Dániel Gyurta can be seen. László Cseh, the famed five-time Olympic medalist, doesn’t appear at all. When Gyárfás was asked about this odd video, he assured people that they will change the video from time to time. However, Viktor Orbán’s role in this whole enterprise is so significant that his person cannot be ignored.

Who will benefit most from the government’s decision to hold the aquatic world championships? It will undoubtedly be István Garancsi, who is viewed as the next Lajos Simicska. His Market Építő won the contract for the 49 billion forint project. The opposition party PM argues that the contract should be voided because it was signed before the publication of the government authorization of the project. The PM chairman demands that Garancsi be disqualified. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.