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.