Five-Ring Circus

A Foreign Swimmer Set a World Record. Let the Irresponsible Doping Accusations Begin.

Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu celebrates after breaking the world record in the women’s 400-meter individual medley at the Rio Olympic Games on Saturday.

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

After 27-year-old Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu demolished a world record in the women’s 400-meter individual medley on Saturday, the cameras panned to the frenzied celebrations of Hosszu’s husband/coach, American Shane Tusup. “And there’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszu, his wife, into a whole different swimmer,” said NBC’s Dan Hicks.

Judging from Twitter, some viewers interpreted this as a sexist outrage—a female athlete puts in an amazing swim, and a man gets the credit. But while Hicks’ phrasing was awkward, it’s not necessarily sexist to observe that Hosszu’s times and tactics have made a huge improvement since Tusup became her coach in 2013. Their relationship is a legitimate topic for analysis, especially since, as Karen Crouse reported in a fascinating New York Times story, his harsh motivational methods have alarmed other swimmers.

Far more disturbing were the whispered insinuations that Hosszu—who’s nicknamed “the Iron Lady”—hadn’t really earned her record time at the Rio Games. Here’s a U.S. correspondent for the website SwimVortex:

As the Washington Post noted, the tweet above was retweeted by Todd Schmitz, the coach of American aquatic darling Missy Franklin.

In addition to that tweet, SwimVortex ran an extended analysis of the race in which Craig Lord wrote that “sighs and sinking spirits … on the media bench are a sign of the times. These are a Games at which seeing is not necessarily believing, skepticism heavy in the air.”

Here’s another not-very-veiled accusation, this one from the publisher of the American magazine Swimming World:

Some important backstory here: Hosszu has an ongoing libel suit against Swimming World and one of its writers, former Olympic swimmer Casey Barrett. That suit was filed in response to a 2015 article headlined “Are Katinka Hosszu’s Performances Being Aided?” The first few sentences of that story: “There is no proof. There never is, not when it matters, not when it’s needed most. So, this is what happens: the coaches grumble; the experts roll their eyes; the athletes offer lukewarm congrats at the end of each eye-popping race.” In her civil complaint, filed last November, Hosszu says the accusation of doping “has been undeniably palpable, harmful, and distressing.”

Back to the Rio Games. Hosszu’s swim in the 400 IM was extraordinary. She was ahead of world-record pace throughout the swim—way, way ahead. Her final time of 4 minutes, 26.36 seconds was almost five seconds faster than second-place finisher Maya Dirado of the United States and knocked nearly two seconds off the world record set by China’s Ye Shiwen at the 2012 Games, when a depressingly large number of people suggested, without evidence, that she was doping. Though this is Hosszu’s fourth Olympics, Saturday’s gold was her first Olympic medal; she has won nine medals, however, at the world championships, including five golds. It’s the improvement that causes people to doubt. Lord, SwimVortex’s Hosszu-skeptical correspondent, claims, “The dominance of Hosszu is part of a truly unique profile in sport. Nowhere is it possible to find anything remotely close to the transformation of a 24 to 27-year-old who has wiped out her best pre-24-age form in every single world championships [event], stroke, and distance.”

It’s a certainty that athletes at this Olympic Games are doping. It’s wrong to make nod-nod, wink-wink suggestions that specific athlete are doping without any hard evidence to back up those accusations. Record-setting athletes are by definition outliers. When those record-setting athletes come from the United States, their remarkable achievements are celebrated as evidence of determination and natural talent. Nobody is suggesting that 35-year-old American freestyler Anthony Ervin—who swims faster now than he did as an Olympic gold medalist 16 years ago—is a big cheater, nor should they. But when record-setters emerge from foreign waters, much of the American media takes a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach. And when it comes to accusations of doping, you can never be proved innocent.

Ye Shiwen, China’s record-setter from London, failed to qualify for the final of the 400 IM on Saturday. Here’s what one of her American competitors had to say about that result:

If Ye had set another record on Saturday, she would’ve been accused of doping. Now that she’s much slower than she was in 2012, she’s … being accused of doping. There are reasonable explanations for Ye’s great performances in London, for those that are inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. The same goes for Katinka Hosszu, who’s worked very hard to improve her fitness and form since coming up short at the 2012 games. Given what we know today, and what we don’t know, it’s irresponsible to suggest that Hungary’s Iron Lady is anything but a gold medalist and a world-record holder. Congratulations, Katinka Hosszu.

Read more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.