Hungarian politics and the Olympics

If it's true, and opinion polls attest to it, that sports achievement greatly influences how nations feel about themselves, Hungarians must be downcast. There are four silver medals and a bronze but so far none of those golds that the Hungarians expected to win.

In general Hungarians are not an optimistic lot, but Hungarian sports writers seem to be an exception, and they of course influence their readership. They tend to be overly confident when writing about the prospects of Hungarian athletes. A good example is the tennis player Ágnes Szávay. The eighteen-year-old was "discovered" when those who keep tabs on international standings realized that her star was ascending. I first learned of her when she was twenty-first internationally. Since then she has moved up to thirteenth, certainly respectable but not in the top tier. Yet every time she goes to a new tournament sports writers predict some fantastic achievement on her part. Then it turns out that their expectations were too high. (Much better to follow the course of most U.S. CEO's–underpromise and overdeliver, though admittedly this doesn't make for great sports writing.)

This time around the Hungarian public was confident that there would be eight gold medals. Pál Schmitt, president of the Hungarian Olympic Committe, even yesterday claimed that there would be at least six. Today he changed his prediction to five.

Poor László Cseh. He is certainly an incredibly talented swimmer. His only misfortune is that he has to swim against Michael Phelps. I really feel sorry for him. He breaks all sorts of records but never manages to beat Phelps. Needless to say, Hungarians are certain that Phelps is on some kind of performance-enhancing drug that is so sophisticated as to be undetectable. In fact, a Hungarian physician the other day announced that everybody is taking drugs but poor nations can afford only steroids that can be easily detected while the rich ones can pay thousands of dollars for drugs specifically designed for the individual. Meanwhile one hears that Phelps's build is perfect for swimming. His arms are so long that if he stretches them outward, their span is greater than his body height. And there is all that talk about the new Speedo swimsuit that works like corset shaping the body to the perfect contour for a swimmer. Phelps actually has a different suit for each event; he claims that in some cases the LZR Racer is too confining. In any case, I just read that Phelps was tested eight times, Cseh six times, and all results are negative. As for the Speedo apparently it was offered to all the swimmers.

Of course, training professional athletes, and let's face it, they are professional, is a very expensive business. It was easy for communist Hungary to produce 41 medal winners in 1952. Of course, this feat had nothing to do with the number of school gyms, contrary to Schmitt's jab at the current government. Rather the state through different state-owned factories and organizations kept up athletic clubs. When I was in high school sports activities in school were restricted to the useless weekly phys ed classes, but all of us who did any kind of sports joined a club. There was informal recruitment through people already in the club. When I was in grade nine a girl from grade twelve went from classroom to classroom asking whether anyone would be interested in learning to fence at the University Athletic Club. Or someone who was already a member of the police force's swimming club asked a person who looked good in the pool whether he or she would be interested in doing a bit more serious swimming. There were meets and eventually strong national teams were formed. Today, although a lot of money still comes from the central budget, millions more would be needed from private donors to identify talent, hire world-class coaches, and train and subsidize hundreds of athletes. Hungarian entrepreneurs either don't have enough money for such extras or don't yet feel an obligation to lend a helping hand. (A footnote: The Home Depot in the U.S. is the model of corporate sponsorship. For a summary of its program go to http://corporate.homedepot.com/wps/portal/Olympics.) Given this situation it is unlikely that a small and relatively poor country will be able to compete with larger and more affluent ones. But it is difficult to face facts and admit that there will not be as many medals as initially envisaged.

Meanwhile, the opposition moved into full swing to accuse the Hungarian government of not providing enough money for the country's Olympic team. I'm sure that much more money could have been spent, but given the country's financial situation I'm actually surprised that the government was as generous as it was. However, when Fidelitas (the youth organization of Fidesz) just began a campaign of placing stickers reading "Gyurcsány's fault" everywhere a person discovers something amiss, one is not at all surprised that any medal shortfall will certainly be Gyurcsány's fault. Schmitt, who is not only president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee but also one of the vice-presidents of Fidesz, announced yesterday that the Hungarian athletes lack "the spirit necessary to win." Clearly, this is a political statement. According to Fidesz, the country is in such bad shape, people are so dispirited and the athletes are also so downcast and upset because of the political situation that they cannot put out what it takes to be victorious. I'm sure that the Hungarian athletes try their best, but it's a bit difficult to blame Gyurcsány because Phelps beats Cseh. How unfair to Cseh, how unfair to Gyurcsány. How low. But I'm no longer surprised by anything.

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Lia
Guest
A lot can be said for the U.S. model of professional and Olympic sports activity. Perhaps one of the reasons Americans have historically done so well across a wide range of sports is because of the personal and community sacrifices that are made by and for young athletes. Parents often take on additional jobs and do without many luxuries to be able to offer their budding athlete everything necessary to excel. Young athletes are hitting the rinks and the pools at un-Godly hours, with no time off from school and/or work — it’s their extracurricular activity and they don’t get any slack from school or employers to pursue it. Often the local community and small businesses pitch in to help the athlete with training, etc. I’m convinced that all of this personal sacrifice by family members, neighbors, and local businesses gets into the psyche of the American athlete, resulting in an ‘I can’t let them down’ mentality. I know I’m painting this with a very broad brush, but consider who a Hungarian athlete is ‘accountable’ to: the State? Puhleeeese. In general, Hungarian athletes and their families make no personal financial commitments or sacrifices to pursue their sport of choice. Let’s… Read more »
Lia
Guest

No idea why the above posted twice, but sorry! I might add, that the opposition’s reaction to the low medal count is so typical, that it’s a parody of what the opposition has become. I’m waiting for Fidesz to blame Gyurcsany (of whom I am definitely not a fan, either) for any inclement weather that might hit the Sziget this week…

Adrian
Guest

Lia,
“Americans have historically done so well across a wide range of sports”
It’s not at all clear that this is the case, if you divide Gold medals won by million people. Hungary has outperformed the USA in in the last three Olympics.
http://simon.forsyth.net/olympics1996.html
Alanta
HUNGARY 0.689
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 0.169
Sydney
HUNGARY 0.7974
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 0.1416
Athens
HUNGARY 0.7905
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 0.1203
So “Puhleeeese”, before you criticise the organisation of sport in Hungary, you should consider how effective it has been in the face of competition with larger, richer nations.

Anthony Moretti
Guest

Great blog. You can count me as a regular reader.

GDF
Guest

Lia: “But why Hungary has a bob team, I cannot fathom…”
Well, it’s obvious to the most casual observer: they want to beat Jamaica!

Lia
Guest

Wait! It gets better: Hungary has a CURLING team, too! http://www.ecf-web.org/nations.html Wonder how much of the state Olympics budget these ‘athletes’ get?!?!?!?

Lia
Guest

Wait! It gets better: Hungary has a CURLING team, too! http://www.ecf-web.org/nations.html Wonder how much of the state Olympics budget these ‘athletes’ get?!?!?!?

Adrian
Guest

Lia,
Why shouldn’t Hungarians be free to spend tax payers money on a system which has historically enabled them to outperform Americans by some 3 to 1?

GDF
Guest

Lia: “Wait! It gets better: Hungary has a CURLING team, too! http://www.ecf-web.org/nations.html Wonder how much of the state Olympics budget these ‘athletes’ get?!?!?!?”
That’s easy, all you need is some ice (the frozen Lake Balaton will do) and a few brooms. Not like bob, for which one may have to build a mountain…

GDF
Guest

Adrian: “Why shouldn’t Hungarians be free to spend tax payers money on a system which has historically enabled them to outperform Americans by some 3 to 1?”
My humble opinion is that there are many other things that should have higher priority (for spending taxpayers’ money) than olympic medals, when it comes to outperforming the US. For example: per capita GDP, standard of living, affordable housing etc.

Lia
Guest
Adrian — I just don’t believe that the GoH should be ‘free to spend’ on anything that doesn’t necessarily improve the overall well-being of a majority of Hungarians, when said Hungarians are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to, as GDF stated, a number of key indicators of national well-being. If I remember correctly, in the U.S., even the 4th of July fireworks are paid for by corporate sponsors; the White House Historical Association pays for renovations and improvements to the White House out of private donations; in fact, many of the most valuable antiques found in the White House come from private collections, donated to the White House. What I’m saying is, basically, many, many ‘extras’, like sports, and historical preservation can better be served by the private sector, without having to spend taxpayers’ money. That said, I stand corrected/enlightened on the medals to population ratio that you stated earlier. I had no idea about those numbers and they are impressive, indeed. However, I am outraged when I read reports about Hungarians not getting their chemotherapy because the system has simply run out of the allotted quota, money, etc. As long as there are people… Read more »
Adrian
Guest

Lia,
Personally I agree with your public spending priorities, but I thought your original post was to the effect that Government sponsored sport was ineffective “Hungarians will become better athletes vis-a-vis their international counterparts when they have to make greater personal, i.e. financial commitments to be able to participate, travel, etc.” Not that Government sponsored sport was immoral “As long as there are people here who don’t get proper access to chemotherapy and other life-saving medical assistance”.
It would be going off-topic to ask whether this doesn’t also occur in the USA, where the health service also relies more on personal commitment rather than state funding. But it is worth pointing out that Hungarians recently chose, by referendum, to maintain their state-funded Healthcare system rather replace it with one that involved more personal sacrifice. Who is to say that if this year’s Olympians return with their tails between their legs, nice Mr Orbán won’t arrange a referendum on this topic too!

Adrian
Guest

Eva,
if you’re going to evoke Soccer, I have to plead no contest!

GDF
Guest

Adrian: “But it is worth pointing out that Hungarians recently chose, by referendum, to maintain their state-funded Healthcare system rather replace it with one that involved more personal sacrifice.”
I am sorry to be a nitpicker, but I think most Hungarians only think that the above was the result of their referendum.
The reality is that they voted for one of two things:
– a continuously deteriorating state financed health care system that is running out of money
– the status quo or an improving state financed health care system at the cost of greatly increasing taxes.
In either of these cases the user of the health system continues to pay substantial moneys to the physicians, these moneys become part of the underground economy because the government tacitly allows them to go untaxed.
The Hungarian voters have not learned yet that the state does not have money; it only has the ability to tax its citizens and then spend that money. The problem with this is, especially in certain parts of the world, that corruption and bureaucracy consume huge chunks of these monies.

Adrian
Guest
GDF, “The Hungarian voters have not learned yet that the state does not have money” This is true, but I think a democracy has to respect their ignorance, until the Hungarian equivalent of Margaret Thatcher comes along and teaches them otherwise. “In either of these cases the user of the health system continues to pay substantial moneys to the physicians, these moneys become part of the underground economy because the government tacitly allows them to go untaxed.” Almost: the money the state pays physicians is fully taxed – not even the Hungarian state is that dysfunctional. Doctors – like teachers – exploit the state in three ways; gratitude money and income from private medical services are not declared; they utilise government property for the provision of these private services; and short working hours which enable them to carry out their private practice. In return the state exploits doctors – and teachers – by giving them, by international standards, ridiculously low salaries. It is not clear to me how these ‘professional’ arrangements can be effectively reformed. Especially as Hungarians enjoy the sense of having cheated the Government (or any other bureaucratic system). I suspect that if the Government could offer them… Read more »
Hatodik Oszlop
Guest

“Great blog. You can count me as a regular reader.”
That’s comment spam, now forwarding to a Bible site.

Adrian
Guest

Lia,
this is icing on the cake for my argument about the effectiveness of state sponsorship of athletes. This from Telegraph’s discussion of the UK’s recent successes:
“Although introduced by former Prime Minister John Major in 1994, it was not until 1997 that restrictions on handing grants to individuals were lifted allowing money to be paid directly to athletes, freeing them up to quit their jobs and train full time”.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/olympics/2574833/Beijing-Olympics-funding-key-to-British-gold-rush.html
With the present medals table, British Olympians are outperforming America’s by almost 3 to 1 per million people. (let us not exclude Michael Phelps)
Strictly speaking our Olympians are funded by the National Lottery rather than by the State. Is this morally better?
Our health services are much more comparable as well! Life expectancy in UK 79, in US 78.

Lia
Guest

I like the lottery idea better. I guess it’s just a cultural thing; Americans are used to doing it the way they do, I guess. As regards health care — sorry — I’ll take the U.S. over the U.K. any day of the week!

Adrian
Guest
Lia, apologies, but you drove me to it: “As regards health care — sorry — I’ll take the U.S. over the U.K. any day of the week” Presumably because unlike a significant minority of Americans you’re either old or properly insured: “At any one time, more than 43m Americans under the age of 65 have no health insurance (the elderly are covered by Medicare, a federal insurance programme). The infant mortality rate for black Americans runs at 14 per 1,000 live births, double the rate for white Americans and over four times the rate in Japan. Indeed, in a 2000 study of the effectiveness of health-care systems around the world, the World Health Organisation ranked America only 37th (France came top).” Not only is the American health system – like her Olympians – a poor performer in international comparisions. It’s fantstically expensive too: “This is a poor reward for spending more on health than any other country. Health care accounts for almost 15% of America’s gross domestic product, compared with less than 8% for Japan and Britain. Moreover, where other countries pay for their health care mostly out of taxation (the OECD average in 2001 was 72%), over half of… Read more »
Vladimir
Guest

Adrian: “It’s not at all clear that this is the case, if you divide Gold medals won by million people. Hungary has outperformed the USA in in the last three Olympics.”
In your tally are you counting team sports as one medal? (Does the double scull rowing winners count as two medals when the water polo gold medalists only counts as one?) Why not tally both the Summer and Winter Olympics?
I think you have skewed the stats to justify your sweeping statements.

GDF
Guest
Adrian: “I was very happy with the UK NHS, and although I live in fear of having to stay in a Hungarian hospital, prefer to be treated by Hungarian doctors and dentists; in my experience they have been kinder, more intelligent and more skilled with their hands.” Nowadays hand skills are somewhat less important (in medicine ;-). I don’t think there is a perfect system. The main reason for the US healthcare’s high cost is that the 80/20 (or worse) rule applies: 80% of the healthcare budget is spent on keeping alive the elderly (or not so elderly) patients whose chances of recovering to a conscious state are nil. To clarify with an example: a 90 year old stroke victim, who is on a respirator and tube feeding, and neurologists established that the patient is not conscious and due to the amount of his/her brain damage, he/she will never wake up from the coma. Keeping this patient alive costs tens of thousands a day, and there are many-many cases like this. On the other hand this system does not keep people in need of elective hip (or similar) surgery on a many months line. Horror stories about these waiting lists… Read more »
Adrian
Guest

Vladmir,
“I think you have skewed the stats to justify your sweeping statements.”
They’re not my stats, please follow the link. If can produce a different calculation I would be pleased to read it.

Adrian
Guest

GDF,
“Nowadays hand skills are somewhat less important (in medicine ;-).”
I disagree, I’ve had English dentists in my mouth (do not misinterpret!) and I’ve had Hungarian ones – I prefer Hungarian ones. Until robots replace doctors, medicine will remain a hands-on profession.

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