Pál Schmitt and the Hungarian Olympic Committee

I must admit Pál Schmitt is not one of my favorites since I find him unprincipled. Today I want to raise two questions, the second obviously more loaded than the first: why is he the head of the Hungarian Olympics Committee, and should he remain in this post?

The sixty-six-year-old Schmitt achieved Olympic glory as a member of the Hungarian épée team that won the gold medal for Hungary in 1968 and 1972. He may not have been the weak link in the team, but he didn't achieve the level of accomplishment of two of his teammates, Győző Kulcsár and Csaba Fenyvesi, both of whom won medals in individual events. However, Schmitt was the only one to leverage his Olympics experience into a career in both sports organizations and party politics. One of his strengths was most likely his extensive knowledge of languages: English, German, French, and Spanish.

After receiving his degree in economics he was hired by Hungarhotels, the state-owned chain of better hotels in Hungary in the socialist days. He spent almost twenty years at Hungarhotels, running the old Hotel Astoria and later Hotel Forum. Schmitt must have had good connections in political circles because he was named ambassador to Spain in 1993. Of course he had no diplomatic experience unless we count "sports diplomacy" because in 1983 Schmitt became secretary of the Hungarian Olympics Committee and a member of the International Olympics Commitee. After 1990 he rose from secretary to president of the Hungarian Olympics Commitee. 

It seems that Schmitt was acceptable to the socialists as well because he continued his post in Spain after MDF lost the elections and an MSZP-SZDSZ government took over the reins of government. During the Orbán government he was again appointed ambassador, this time to Switzerland, a post he held between 1999 and 2002. At this point, according to wagging tongues, Schmitt offered his political services to the socialists who won the elections in 2002 but apparently he had no takers. And so he returned to Fidesz.

Fidesz decided that it was too weak in Budapest to take on the popular incumbent mayor, Gábor Demszky (SZDSZ), and therefore the party hid behind the "independent" candidate, Pál Schmitt. Although the socialists had their own candidate against Demszky, splitting the left vote, Schmitt ended up only with 35.85% of the votes against Demszky's 46.7%. The socialist candidate received 13.17% of the votes. So Schmitt didn't get very far in Budapest.

A few months later Schmitt somewhat theatrically announced that he was ready "to sacrifice his independence" and join Fidesz. This time the reason was obvious: in the summer of 2004 Hungary was preparing for its first elections to the European Parliament. Fidesz offered top billing on the Fidesz list to Schmitt. Because at this point the Medgyessy-led socialist government's popularity had hit rock bottom, Fidesz managed to send the largest delegation to Brussels with Schmitt's name at the top of the list. Schmitt is still in Brussels but almost as a place holder. Fidesz's real spokesman and leading politician in Brussels is József Szájer. Schmitt also became one of the vice presidents of Fidesz, but here too he is not really a political heavyweight.

Meanwhile there were quite a few people in the Hungarian sports world who thought that Schmitt's involvement in politics was not good for the Hungarian Olympics Committee. Some people figured, and not without reason, that the socialist government would not be terribly happy to deal with a committee head who is also a Fidesz politician. They argued that it would be better if Schmitt resigned. But Schmitt is not the kind of man to back down. First of all, it seems that he is somewhat of a money grubber and being a member of the Hungarian Olympics Committee is lucrative, in salary but more in perks. For instance, a free trip to the Beijing Olympics. I have the feeling that Schmitt's income from his three or four jobs adds up to a very handsome monthly salary.

Those who were afraid that the socialist government would not do its utmost to help Hungarian sports because of Schmitt's position as head of the Olympics Committee worried without reason. The Olympics Committee never received more money than it did this year. The fencers received 177.6 million forints as opposed to eight years ago (during the Orbán government) when they got only 158.7 million. The situation in swimming was even more striking–133.5 million in 2002 and 289.9 this year. And one could go on.

Yet Schmitt after the first week of slim pickings (five medals, none of them gold) announced that the poor performance of Hungarian athletes is due to the fact that the Hungarian government doesn't spend enough money on sports. It must be the Hungarian government's fault that six out of ten children do not engage in any kind of physical activity. Or that 25% of them are overweight. And, most telling according to Schmitt, the ministry of sports (the brainchild of the Orbán government) was eliminated and therefore the whole world of sports collapsed. Considering that Gyurcsány started his political career as sports minister he knew darned well why this ministry was an unnecessary expense.

The message was: everything is the government's fault because it didn't give enough money and because it closed the ministry of sports, subsumed under another ministry. Not a word about the fact that perhaps the Hungarian Olympics Committee might be at fault. More than 3 billion forints was given to the Olympics Committee to distribute among the different sports associations. Therefore it is not at all true what one of the leaders of the Hungarian Olympics Committee said: the government degraded the Committee to be no more than a travel agency. However, as some critics claim, the Olympics Committee indeed is acting as a travel agency. Only 170 Hungarian athletes qualified to attend the Beijing Olympics and "many hundreds" of hangers-on accompanied them. From the article I read I received the distinct feeling that there were more "sponsors" as they are charitably called than athletes.

Meanwhile all these "messages" can only damage the morale of the Hungarian athletes. Bernadette Budai, one of the two government spokesmen, very gently asked all the people involved (Schmitt included, of course) to refrain from making statements that are not helping the cause of those Hungarian athletes still in competition. However, knowing the Hungarian political situation, I don't have much hope that the noise will subside. The only thing I'm curious about is what will happen to Pál Schmitt's position as the head of the Hungarian Olympics Committee. Earlier some of his opponents tried to oust him, but they were not successful. Perhaps it's time for a change. How many companies with declining performance keep their CEO's in place for twenty years?