The Smell of Smoke

Katinka Hosszu is the best all-around swimmer on earth right now... What everyone is talking about, but no one wants to say...  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. Everyone talks, but no one speaks up. Because only amateurs fail drug tests, and without that proof positive test it's all just jealous hearsay.

Except the chatter is often true, and the visual evidence - on the body and the scoreboard - generally doesn't lie.

Our latest Exhibit A: Hungary's "Iron Lady" Katinka Hosszu. FINA's reigning World Swimmer of the Year; three-time world champion; holder of five short course meter world records; and the woman who, last fall, became the first swimmer ever to surpass $1 million earned solely in prize money in the pool. She did this, of course, by globe-trotting the World Cup circuit and swimming a superhuman number of races at almost every stop.

This has resulted in a considerable amount of fawning press from the world's swimming media. "Iron Lady" has a certain brand-name ring to it, and Hosszu keeps the headlines pumping. No one competes, consistently, at a higher level than she does. Repeat - no one, ever. Not Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky and certainly not Ryan Lochte, who's always tended to look like a beaten slow sack of chiseled flesh when he races while immersed in heavy training. But not Hosszu. Her consistency, her ability to recover, and her never-flagging form continues without breakdown, regardless of when or where the race is going down.

Consider last weekend at the Charlotte Arena Pro Swim Series. Hosszu raced in seven individual events. She won six: the 200 free and the 400 IM on day one; the 200 fly and 100 back on day two (along with a why-not 9th in the 400 free); and the 200 IM and 200 back on day three. It was that last double on the third day that caught many eyes. Within a sixteen minute span, Hosszu posted the top time in the world this year in the 200 IM (2:08.66) and returned after a gasp of a warm-down later with a 200 back in 2:07.79, the third fastest time on earth this year. Not bad for an in-season meet that witnessed most of the superstars in attendance plodding through some very tired, in-training swims.

Since London, this has been a pretty standard meet's showing for Hosszu. She's always entered in a bounty of events and she always tends to deliver incredible performances every time she touches water. I understand the whole Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training (USRPT) philosophy now in vogue, being popularized and questioned through the exploits of young Michael Andrew, yet Hosszu's travel-the-world-collect-the-cash training program stretches the limits of even that dubious science.

No one wants to come out and point fingers. I hope I'm wrong, and to be clear - to any litigious minded folks out there - I realize I'm trafficking in currently unprovable conjecture. But I'm not alone, and past signposts point down some dark roads.

For the last year or so, I've been immersed in writing a documentary called "The Last Gold." It's a film about the tragedy of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when the last of the innocent days of Olympic sport were lost. A doped East German team of women appeared on the Olympic landscape and they forever corrupted the sport. Lives were altered and shattered, on both sides, and we've never viewed athletic performance in quite the same way again.

One driving narrative of our film is the failure of the press to speak up in the face of such obvious corruption. In retrospect, and even in the present tense, it was beyond obvious what was going on. We were witnessing female bodies be distorted to unnatural strength and power, and they were delivering performances that could not be explained by any rational observer. Those in the know knew what was going on, but there was no proof. So no one said much of anything. Instead, the press labeled the few brave souls who spoke out, like Shirley Babashoff, sore losers. When in fact, these were the truth tellers, the ones outraged by the ugly facts hiding in plain sight.

Nothing has changed. Forty years later, it continues to happen, in every sport, every time there's a champion who stretches plausible achievement in ways that don't quite pass the bullshit test for anyone paying attention. For years I reveled as the blasphemous bastard who loved to incense my Lance-loving friends (especially those who liked to ride bikes) by calling Lance Armstrong a liar and a cheat and the worst kind of athlete scum ever to compete in any sport. That's what he was, and is, and sometimes it's a damn shame to be right.

Secretly, every cynic hopes to be wrong.

I hope I'm wrong now. It's just that there's a distinct smokey aroma around Katinka Hosszu's performances these last two years. And where there's smoke... Hell, finish the cliché yourself. Instead, I'll share this indelicate comment made by a close friend when I first told him I was thinking of addressing this. Said he: "Being surprised that Hosszu might be doping is like going to a strip club and being surprised that the strippers have fake tits!" Apologies if that offends anyone's delicate sensibilities. Sometimes the best similes are the crude ones.

For all of Hosszu's incredible achievements there is one rather glaring omission from her resumé. She has never won an Olympic medal. Not gold, which is the prerequisite for American greatness in swimming, I mean any color medal. Curious for an athlete so utterly dominant in her sport for years on end. It also may go a long way in explaining her current status as not only the best, but the most speculated about swimmer in the world.

Last month, NBC published a story about how Hosszu emerged from depression after the 2012 London Olympics, when she placed 4th in her signature event, the 400 IM. She expected gold. In her own words, she "gave up" with two laps to go and despite having more events on her program, she admitted that "my Olympics was pretty much done. I wanted to go home."

Her spirit, she says, was shattered by the swimmer who won that 400 IM in London. 16-year-old Ye Shiwen of China, who blistered through the final 100 meters in a split so fast (58.68) that it seemed impossible for a woman - that is, without the help of performance enhancement. There was outraged talk that Ye had to be doped, some of it bordering on the xenophobic. True or not, most believed it. Did Hosszu? That's only for her to say.

Yet, here's one thing that we've learned in producing a documentary that centers around doping and the dark clouds that circle it. There is one prerequisite for athletes who dope: They must convince themselves that their competition is doing it. That is the only thing that can validate crossing this line.

In 2012, Katinka Hosszu's spirit was crushed by a performance achieved through dubious means. Ever since, she has been the one standing atop every podium.