By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's top swimmers including triple Olympic champion Katinka Hosszu have demanded a complete overhaul of the country's Swimming Association in a bitter dispute that threatens to harm Budapest's bid to host the 2024 summer Olympics.
Keen to defuse the row, the government has backed the swimmers' calls for reform, though it has stopped short of endorsing Hosszu's demand for the resignation of the association's veteran chairman, Tamas Gyarfas.
Hosszu accuses Gyarfas of running the sport in Hungary in an authoritarian and opaque manner. Gyarfas, who has headed the association with only a brief break since 1993, denies the accusations of mismanagement.
Hosszu and a dozen other top Hungarian swimmers including London gold medalist breaststroker Daniel Gyurta issued a joint statement on Monday demanding a new leadership, better conditions, transparent rules and fair access to funds.
"All of us resent the singular influence of the chairman on all decision-making," Hosszu said in the statement, posted on her Facebook page. "Most swimmers don't dare to speak up."
"The single most important condition to the situation we desire is that the current leaders of the Hungarian Swimming Association - which no longer enjoys the confidence it needs to represent the world of swimming - step down," it said.
Hungary will host the World Aquatics Championships next July, an event it hopes will buttress Budapest's standing as a top sporting venue before the International Olympic Committee picks the host city of the 2024 Summer Olympics next September.
Budapest is one of three remaining candidates alongside Paris and Los Angeles after Rome withdrew from the race.
Hungary's state secretary for sports Tunde Szabo said the government sympathized with the swimmers' views and demands and urged the association to work with them on reforms.
"(The 2017 World Championships) can bring new opportunities as the host of the 2024 Olympic Games will be picked in Lima in September," Szabo, who herself holds two Olympic silver medals for the backstroke, said in a statement.
"This goal cannot be undermined by any anarchy raising its head in the sport," Szabo said in the statement, endorsed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
"The leadership of the sport must change and adapt. The swimming association must respond to the demands of the athletes because the steps they have taken so far are insufficient."
Hosszu won three golds in Rio and smashed the 400 individual medley world record by more than two seconds.
Her novel training regimen - which includes nonstop racing in dozens of events at the global professional circuit - has made her into a role model for swimmers worldwide, as well as the sport's first prize money millionaire.
Hosszu's dispute with Gyarfas erupted into the open last year when she tore up a contract that would have tied her financial support to appearances in Association advertisements.
Gyarfas, who is also the influential vice chairman of the sport's global governing body FINA, declined a request from Reuters to comment for this article on the feud.
The Swimming Association, where Gyarfas was re-elected last year by 119 votes to one against, said in a statement that the swimmers were "misguided" and called for a period of calm ahead of the 2017 Worlds.
It also disputed the swimmers' suggestion of difficulties in access to training camps or facilities and accused Hosszu's American coach-husband Shane Tusup of stoking animosity.
"It is a fact that the Association, including the chairman and coaches, have been unable to see eye to eye with Katinka Hosszu's trainer, the American Shane Tusup, but that has more than linguistic reasons," the statement said, implying that Tusup did not want to resolve the problems through dialogue.
Hosszu and Tusup have refused to work with the Association in the past year, citing irreconcilable differences.
Tusup told Reuters last year he and Hosszu had challenged what they see as the Association's obsession with Olympic success. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)