sights & culture


New Katinka film joins the podium of great sports documentaries – but does it have global appeal?


  • Peterjon Cresswell

13/05/2022 11.52am

Maradona, Senna, The Last Dance, sports documentaries have found huge global success in recent years, focusing on compelling personalities with international appeal. Premiered in Budapest this week, Katinka has this trend in mind. although its star, Katinka Hosszú, and its story arc, from Iron Lady swimming champion to happy housewife, may only resonate with Hungarian audiences. The film’s producer, creative producer, director and the Olympic star herself gave their own take on Katinka at a special press screening – as did the government commissioner for film, Csaba Káel, involved in the funding of this controversially high-budget production.

This summer’s FINA World Swimming Championships in Budapest will surely be the swansong for three-time Olympic champion Katinka Hosszú. Last year in Tokyo, she competed at her fifth Games, an incredible feat in itself, usually reserved for those involved in more leisurely pursuits such as sailing and equestrianism. In the brutal world of competitive swimming, it’s almost unheard of.

Over the course of those two decades, Hosszú trained at the University of Southern California, became the first swimmer to earn $1 million in prize money, married her then coach, American Shane Tusup, won those three golds, formed her own professional swimming team here in Budapest and became known and branded as the Iron Lady.

Katinka Hosszú at the premiere

Photo: Katinka The Movie/Facebook

So far, so decorated. Whether this makes for a movie that will fill halls and screens across the US, UK and elsewhere – as, say, Maradona has – is more uncertain. Currently there is no English-friendly version, just snippets of dialogue from her USC coaches in the States, though none from Tusup in person, from whom Hosszú divorced in 2019.

A lot of invitations were sent out to him to speak in the film,” said Hosszú after the screening. “He declined.” He was, however, in the words of its producer Tamás Lajos, “generous” in agreeing to the use of archive footage, in which the American appears quite often. It’s then that we see how the couple seemed to live in their own bubble of fanatical training and Olympic glory, Tusup exhorting, Hosszú winning.

Photo: Katinka The Movie/Facebook

For Hungarians, this aspect holds the most fascination, partly because of the scandal that surrounded the break-up, partly because Tusup is still very much here, on magazine covers and ever present on social media at events across Hungary.

Mainly, though, they want to find out how a brash, tattooed American stole the mantle of the old-school Hungarian coaches of yore, the likes of Tamás Széchy and the later disgraced László Kiss, not the kind of men to leap up, high five and yelp ‘AWESOME!!’. This is a nation raised on solid Olympian achievements in swimming, from the gold of Alfréd Hajós at the inaugural Games in 1896 to the stars of Barcelona ’92 and beyond. Like the Rubik’s Cube and the telephone exchange, it’s something Hungarians feel is theirs.

Photo: Katinka The Movie/Facebook

For non-Magyars, once Katinka is customised for English-speaking viewers, this window into her world is an enthralling one. The battles here are all personal – there’s no brutal full-back to chop her knees, no heavyweight intent on punching her lights out. Just her, the water and the clock.

The other opponent, of course, in the build-up to her last Olympics around which the film is posited, was Covid. As its creative producer Norbert Köbli explained to the gathered press at the Uránia National Film Theatre, “What we saw as our bad luck eventually made the film more interesting, and I was rubbing my palms for that kind of drama!

Creative producer Norbert Köbli (left), producer Tamás Lajos (right)

Photo: Katinka The Movie/Facebook

On the surface, lockdown for Hosszú was pretty much the same as for everyone else, days mushing into one another and sharing this experience with her peers by tablet screen, but the lack of intensive training eventually counts against her in Tokyo.

The window of opportunity that summer, however, did give the crew the chance to fly out to LA and film Hosszú hooking up with her old coaches and teammates at the University of Southern California.

When asked at the press screening what America gave her that Hungary couldn’t, the greatest swimmer of her generation was succinct: “Self-confidence”. Her family and friends in Baja, where Hosszú grew up, could cocoon a young girl in love and affection but they could never throw her into the deep end on the other side of the world and say, “Now swim!

Photo: Katinka The Movie/Facebook

While James Bondesque in its settings – swimming meets and training sessions from Cape Town to Tenerife – Katinka focuses on two key locations, Hungary and California.

Here, among the varied cast of fellow swimmers and schoolfriends she left trailing in her wake, we stumble upon the two sweethearts in the pack. Older men with a lifetime of experience in sport, Dave Salo and László Bakos represent the two platforms upon which so many swimming achievements have been accomplished in each nation: collegiate excellence and grandparents.

Dave Salo & Katinka Hosszú

Photo: Katinka The Movie/Facebook

While Salo’s kind and wise approach has paid off for America at three Olympic Games, Bakos nurtured his beloved granddaughter at school competitions across Hungary, he logging times in notebooks he still keeps, she collecting medals and trophies.

Salo is seen in typically generous mode for the film interview as Hosszú looks back on her time at USC pre-Tussup. Bakos, meanwhile, appears in his natural habitat, the timeless Hungary of lazy riverbanks and beer-bellied fishermen as he takes Katinka out on his boat, the calming ripples of the Danube reverberating around them.

László Bakos & Katinka

Photo: Katinka The Movie/Facebook

For Hosszú to disappear into the sunset, literally, with her latest beefcake she will soon marry, the story arc now complete, she needed the love, support and advice of these two figures.

It makes for a warmer, deeper film than the frenzied equations of training and racing might first suggest. Whether it will resonate enough beyond Hungary is the next challenge.

In Hungarian cinemas from 12 May

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