Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú won gold in the 400 meter individual medley last night, smashing the world record by over two seconds. She will compete in four other events during these Olympics, and stands a good chance at becoming one of Rio’s most decorated athletes. But surrounding all of her accomplishments will be a question that nobody seems willing or able to answer: Is Hosszú being abused by her husband and coach, Shane Tusup?
NBC announcer Dan Hicks raised the ire of many viewers when, after Hosszú’s victory, as the camera showed Tusup exulting and roaring on the swim deck, he said, “There’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszú, his wife, into a whole different swimmer.” Later on, one of the announcers alluded to the whispers of abuse: “The influence he’s had on her ... it can be very, very harsh. In fact, it’s been a little disturbing to other swimmers who’ve observed it. And Hosszú admits that.”
But what might have sounded like a random sexist diminishment of a woman swimmer’s success was, in fact, a much-discussed story in the swimming world. How does that story go, exactly? The CliffsNotes version reads like this: Hosszú, a medal contender four years ago, flamed out at the London Olympics. Afterwards she asked her then-boyfriend Tusup—whom she met at USC, where they were both swimmers—to become her coach. As coach, he had her begin serious weight training and pursue a strategy of training in the pool less and competing more. Combined, this worked for Hosszú on the World Cup and Grand Prix series of events, and is now paying dividends in Rio.
But much of the concern in the swimming community has focused less on Tusup’s results than on his methods; some swimmers walk right up to the line of accusing Tusup of abusing Hosszú. Here’s the nut graph of a New York Times profile of the couple:
Jessica Hardy, an Olympic medalist who used to train with Hosszu in Los Angeles and wrote about being subjected to verbal and emotional abuse as a child, said, “I’ve seen a lot of inappropriate and not-O.K. behavior in Shane.”
She added: “I’ve seen coaches exhibit that kind of behavior in training, but this is another level. It’s scary.”
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Somewhat strangely, the story doesn’t go much deeper than that. Having raised the issue of abuse, it then puts it aside for a long stretch before circling back to Hardy, who describes Tusup isolating Hosszú:
Hardy, who also raced in Arizona, said she had not talked with Hosszu since a 2013 meet at which Tusup told Hardy not to speak to Hosszu.
“He said I was distracting her,” Hardy, who was once a close friend of Hosszu’s, said, adding: “She seems happy with the dynamic. I have empathy, but I don’t think she needs or wants anybody’s assistance.”
The piece also mentions Tusup having once told Hosszú to kill herself:
After the backstroke, Hosszu avoided making eye contact with Tusup, who upbraided her while swimmers from other teams stared. Tusup continued his critique in the warm-down area, where two people said they overheard him suggesting to Hosszu that she stay in the water and drown.
It’s hard to be sure what conclusions to draw from this, given that many coach-athlete relationships are abusive. Bear Bryant is famous for having almost killed an entire team in Texas, Bobby Knight’s screaming and chair-throwing got him the third-most wins in D-1 college basketball history, and Béla Károlyi’s brutal methods led to numerous Olympic golds. To the extent that these relationships are considered normal in sports, is Tusup and Hosszú’s fundamentally different or worse? Does their being husband and wife make a difference? These are real questions, but the Times doesn’t dig into them.
The Times’s placement of Hardy’s assertions would seem to suggest that reporter Karen Crouse doesn’t believe Hosszú and Tusup’s claims that their marriage is fine, that they can separate their athlete-coach and wife-husband relationships, and that in contrast to his behavior on the pool deck, Tusup is a loving husband at home. But the rest of the story isn’t really written that way, and there is no paragraph that plainly lays out what is known and unknown, or what the reporter thinks.
Other outlets take a similarly muddled approach. The Associated Press pegged a story on their relationship to Hosszú’s victory, titled “The stomping, fuming inspiration behind Katinka Hosszú,” and it contains even more passive language:
Tusup’s intense demeanor toward Hosszu at the pool has caused some in the swimming community to raise their eyebrows, but Hosszu sings his praises over and over again, both for the improvement she says he has brought in her swimming and the connection they have as husband and wife.
This is a difficult story to report. The person who knows best whether Tusup’s behavior crosses the line, Hosszú, emphatically says that it does not. But abused people often deny that they are being abused, and isolating somebody from her friends and telling her to kill herself are abusive actions. To merely gesture at those things is inadequate.
There is a final cryptic wrinkle here, which is that the Times story can also be read as a coded steroids story posing as a coded abuse story. This description is straight out of a Toronto Blue Jays-era Roger Clemens profile:
“The first practice after the London Olympics, less than three weeks after the Olympics, she came back, and she had been training with Shane already, and I saw a different Katinka,” Hardy said. “More fit and more in shape.”
Hardy added, “She worked hard before, but she wasn’t as motivated as she is now.”
Tusup is a very big guy—the Times describes him as having a “weekend bodybuilder’s physique”—and the account of Hosszú suddenly embracing weight training and getting incredibly strong sets off alarm bells. Hosszú was all but accused of using performance enhancing drugs in Swimming World, which she is now suing for libel. She has never failed a doping test, but the strength gains, the improved performance, and the angry, volatile relationship all conjure up memories of Marion Jones and ex-husband C.J. Hunter.
So is Hosszú being abused? Is she abusing steroids? I have no idea, but more importantly, none of those stories about her seem to know either—or at least, if they do, they’re not telling us.