Writing posts for Hungarian Spectrum is a constant learning process. For example, what did I know about FINA’s World Aquatics Championships? Nothing, but now that Hungary foolishly offered to hold it in two years’ time I had to learn something about them in a great hurry. These world championships have been held every two years since 1972. The aquatic sports that are included are swimming, diving, open water swimming, synchronized swimming, and water polo. Hungary happens to be very competitive in aquatic sports, in seventh place in the all-time medal count, after the United States, China, Russia/Soviet Union, Australia, East Germany, and West Germany/Germany.
The aquatic world championships were held in Barcelona in 2013 and this year in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. Hungary was slated to hold the games in 2021, but in February of this year “a fantastic opportunity” presented itself. The Mexican city of Guadalajara decided that, for economic reasons, it would not be able to host the games in 2017. Surely, that came as an unpleasant surprise to FINA, the international governing body of aquatic sports. FINA’s president, Cornel Marculescu, asked Budapest whether they would be willing to switch. Tamás Gyárfás, who has been the president of the Hungarian Swimming Association since 1993, tried to sound cautious, but he was obviously excited about the prospect. The question was whether Viktor Orbán could be persuaded to spend large sums of money on the projects that had to be built in record time.
In less than three weeks, on March 11, 2015, Orbán and Marculescu signed the agreement. The eagerness of the prime minister might have something to do with Gyárfás’s clever pitch. It looks as if he sold Orbán on the idea by pointing out that if Hungary organizes a successful aquatic world championship in 2017, this might tip the scale in Hungary’s favor in its bid to hold the 2024 Olympics in Hungary. Such an argument most likely made an impression on Orbán, who has been dreaming about hosting the Olympic games in Budapest for at least fifteen years and would dearly love to do so while he is still prime minister of Hungary. And the clock is ticking down on his self-projected 20-year rule.
Gyárfás’s original figure for the project was 23 billion forints, which sounded low. And, indeed, it was. In mid-May Magyar Közlöny, the official government gazette, revealed that the government had put aside about 50 billion forints for the project for the next three years. As usual, government members came up with conflicting explanations for the discrepancy, which confused Hungarian journalists. In the end, it turned out that the original 23 billion figure will cover only the new swimming center that will be built where the Dagály Bath is currently situated, in a not so elegant section of the city. In addition, an incredible number of other projects will have to be completed before the world championships of 2017 can be held.
The vastness of this enterprise can be gleaned from an interview with Tamás Gyárfás, in which he gives a partial list of requirements for holding the games. There will be at least two centers of activities, one where the Dagály Bath is now and the other on Margit Sziget (Margaret Island). The competitors will have to be transported between the two locations, either by bus or perhaps by small boats on the Danube. The road where the Dagály Bath is located is in terrible shape. It has to be fixed. It turns out that the city also needs a building where the wares of hundreds of companies that manufacture sports items can be displayed. He also talked about a road between the metro station and the swimming complex. In addition, a pedestrian bridge will be built between the Dagály complex and Margit Sziget. But that’s not all. Margit Sziget also has to be fixed up. There are a couple of eyesores there: neglected tennis courts and buildings. They are thinking of having a “panorama restaurant” on top of the swimming complex. Yes, this would raise the costs by 1-2%, but in Gyárfás’s opinion it will become the favorite place in the capital. And let’s not forget about Balatonfüred where “at least one new center is needed” which later could be used as a conference center. The list seems endless.
Viktor Orbán’s latest foray into the world of sports has already drawn criticism even though work on the projects hasn’t yet begun. The organizers ordered a video with a song celebrating the event which turned out to be more about Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz politicians than about the swimmers. In the three-minute video Viktor Orbán appears nine times, Lajos Kósa, seven, Tamás Gyárfás six, and Zsolt Borkai, president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, three. Among the many famous Hungarian swimmers, only Katina Hosszú and Dániel Gyurta can be seen. László Cseh, the famed five-time Olympic medalist, doesn’t appear at all. When Gyárfás was asked about this odd video, he assured people that they will change the video from time to time. However, Viktor Orbán’s role in this whole enterprise is so significant that his person cannot be ignored.
Who will benefit most from the government’s decision to hold the aquatic world championships? It will undoubtedly be István Garancsi, who is viewed as the next Lajos Simicska. His Market Építő won the contract for the 49 billion forint project. The opposition party PM argues that the contract should be voided because it was signed before the publication of the government authorization of the project. The PM chairman demands that Garancsi be disqualified. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.