Budapest Day 3: A Land Of Athletes

Since coming to Budapest, I have seen people canoeing, running and cycling. What makes this county so drawn to sports? Did you know that Hungary is one of the most successful countries at the summer olympic games?

Before drawing the picture of the Hungarian sports culture, let us have a guess at the most productive sports at the Summer Olympic Games (have your pick before reading forward):

a. water polo, swimming, handball

b. fencing, swimming, canoeing

c. fencing, athletics, gymnastics

Handball, an olympic discipline since 1976, has done well with two bronzes and one silver. Also, Hungary is the greatest olympic nation in men’s water polo. However, as there is only one medal to grab in team sports, it doesn’t add much to the total count.

In gymnastics, some legendary athletes of the recent decades are Henrietta Onodi (a gold on vault) and Szilveszter Csollany (a gold on rings). As for athletics, the Hungarians haven’t been as successful as their Romanian neighbours for instance, or as the Bulgarians, further south. The explanation is obvious, if you ask me: they spend more time in water than on hard land.

Joke aside, in Budapest alone, aquatics facilities have existed since the Middle Ages, thanks to those pushy Ottomans that built Turkish baths all over town (still functioning today). In the light of these facts, the correct answer to my multiple-choice question, is quite easy.

A hundred years

of fencing, swimming and canoeing. At the London Olympics, a Hungarian sabreur, Aron Szilagyi, won the gold medal after a twenty-year break in men’s competitions. The pre-WWII olympic history of fencing was dominated by the Hungarians. Then a steep revival occurred in the ’60 and ’70. In women’s epee, Timea Nagy was and still is considered among the few best in history, after having won two olympic titles in 2000 and 2004.

The country’s first medal in swimming came at the Games of the I Olympiad, in Athens 1896. Soon afterwards, an olympic pool opened in Budapest, bearing the name of the first Hungarian gold medalist: Alfred Hajos. The hero of the recent decades was Krisztina Egerszegi, the undisputed queen of backstroke, having won gold in 200m at three consecutive Olympics between 1988 and 1996. How was this possible? The woman was 14 at her first Games.

I believe that canoeing is the least appealing sport to watch among the hungarian top three. I insist on ‘to watch’, because I am convinced, after spending some time around canoeing schools here on the Danube, that it is an exciting, competitive and demanding discipline to practice. Hungary’s most impressive results at the Games were achieved in Sydney 2000: four gold medals.

A thousand years …

in search of national identity. Hungary’s need to express pride in the nation comes after a long and loaded history including periods of occupation (by the Turks), suzerainty (of the Habsburgs) or even destruction (WWII). In 1956, students lead a demonstration demanding democratic reforms, but as they were no match for the overwhelming Soviet forces, the city was seized by the Russians.

1956 was the year of the Melbourne Olympics, which took place in autumn, shortly after the siege of Budapest. The Men’s olympic final in water polo brought together, you guessed well, Hungary and The Soviet Union. (Here is the trailer of a 2006 film recalling this fantastic happening). After an intense match, Hungary won 4:0.

Today, sports are a hobby foremost, an idea that has been seeded mostly by the media. Moreover, in such a city, it’s hard to keep one’s snickers inside as the soft climate together with the tracks on the hills of Buda and along both riversides are made for running. Besides, you have exceptional events like the Women’s Champions League Final4 to remind you that Budapest is maybe the greatest capital of sports never to have hosted Summer Olympics.

Photos of rowers on Labour Day

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