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The opening extravaganza of the Aquatic Championships didn’t capture the world’s imagination

The Aquatic World Championships, the largest ever sports event in Hungarian history, began with an expensive opening ceremony on Friday night. The cost of the event has preoccupied members of the Hungarian media. In the last few days journalists have been trying to figure out how much each minute of the two-hour program cost the taxpayers, and they came up with 28.3 million forints or $89,960.

As far as the Hungarian government is concerned, every cent spent was worth it. After all, and now I am quoting the government’s very own Magyar Idők, “because thanks to the television coverage [the director] dazzled the world with a fantastic image of the country.” The justification for holding the event was that tourism would receive a boost that would compensate for the expenses incurred. But the real emphasis was always on image building. People would be overwhelmed by the cityscape over the Danube, the majestic parliament building, and the Royal Castle. The speed with which the organizers managed to put this great show together should also impress the world. Hungary is strong, proud, and competitive.

As far as Magyar Idők is concerned, everything turned out absolutely splendidly. The new Duna Aréna is “one of the largest and most beautiful swimming pools.” As for the opening ceremony, it was “dazzling” as it portrayed “the meeting of water and culture in Hungarian history.” The program generously began with the Roman city of Aquincum, today’s Óbuda. There were eight episodes, which included the Hungarians’ arrival, Renaissance Buda, hussars, the music of Ferenc Liszt and Zoltán Kodály, Hungarian operettas, pop culture, folk songs, and folk costumes. How much did foreigners understand from all that? I suspect not much. In addition, the American CeeLo Green sang “Bright Lights Bigger City” and “Crazy.”

As for the quality of the program, well, that depends on your artistic sensibilities and to some extent on your political views. Reporters from media outlets like Index and 444.hu were less than thrilled. But for the organizers the most important consideration was the impact of this extravaganza. After all, the chief aim of staging the championships was ostensibly to advertise Budapest and Hungary, and therefore they wanted millions of people to be exposed to the events in Budapest. The eyes of the world will be on Hungary, the organizers assured the population. They talked about 5 billion cumulative views.

But came the first day with the opening ceremony on which they spent so much money and the reaction was, how shall I say, less than what they expected. Hours after the event one couldn’t find anything on the internet about this proud moment, which was supposed to spread the good name of Hungary all over the world. No problem. In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary creating an alternative reality is an everyday occurrence.

Hungary’s official news agency, MTI, came up with the simplest solution. It created news showing the opening ceremony being widely covered in the international media. Let me quote the opening lines of its news item. “On Saturday the international media first and foremost concentrated on the opening ceremony of the Aquatic World Championships in Budapest. The objective articles are richly illustrated with photographs, highlighting the most important moments of the ceremony.“ But MTI failed to mention any of those publications that carried the richly illustrated articles. Therefore, suspicious Hungarian reporters who are only too aware of MTI’s habit of falsifying the news tried to verify the MTI report. The blogger of Comment:com checked both Google and Bing and found only one article, in Euronews.com. Here is what it had to say about the opening ceremony: “Crowds in Budapest witnessed spectacular scenes at the opening ceremony of the World Aquatic Championships, the biggest sporting event ever staged in Hungary…. Euronews correspondent Ferenc Horvath noted that the cost of producing the opening extravaganza may break records.” Period.

In addition, this morning a short, somewhat sarcastic little news item appeared in Politico’s “Brussels Playbook”–“Budapest’s Latest Soft Power Play.” It did mention the “flashy opening ceremony,” but the article was really about “the most powerful woman in Hungary,” Katinka Hosszú, who is “a multi-millionaire triple Olympic gold medalist who is using her political skills to form a global professional swimmers union. Watch out, Viktor!” It was from this meager amount of material that MTI created an event reported widely and enthusiastically as a “spectacular and dazzling” performance.

As far as TV coverage of the championship events over the next two weeks is concerned, although sports fans in Great Britain and Canada will be able to follow at least some of the events on BBC and CBC, I fear that not too many Americans will be able to watch them. They will be aired on a brand new sports channel, NBC Olympic Channel, which was launched just today. Thus, for example, the opening ceremony will not be broadcast. It will be a very narrowly focused channel. The programming will be done by NBCUniversal, the International Olympic Committee, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Olympic Channel will be available via some of the large cable providers such as A&T DirecTV, Comcast, and Verizon. But the viewership of programming on a brand new channel will most likely be minuscule.

All in all, the dreams about the fantastic impact the championships will have on Hungary’s image were, I’m afraid, way overblown.

July 15, 2017