Tag Archives: Olympic Games

The Hungarian swimming team at the Olympic Games

I must say that I have a great deal less enthusiasm for the Olympic Games today than a few decades ago when for two solid weeks I watched the games practically all day long. The scandals surrounding competitive sports, from sexual molestation to brutal training methods (here I’m thinking of Tamás Széchy, the famed coach who put Hungarian swimming on the map) to performance enhancing drugs, have tainted the games for me.

The recent discovery of the rape case against the young László Kiss (now 75), who until a few months ago was the premier coach of the Hungarian national team, shook the swimming establishment, which was already having a rough time as a result of the clash between Katinka Hosszú, the “iron lady,” and the Magyar Úszószövetség (Hungarian Swimming Association). I wrote about the clash at some length in a post published in January 2016. Hosszú and her American-born coach and husband Shane Tusup, after training in Hungary for three years, decided that they had had enough of the inadequate facilities and outmoded training methods available in Hungary. They had tried to convince the swimming authorities to make changes, to no avail. In that post I described Hosszú’s “revolt” as “a clash between the old and the new” and not a spoiled prima donna’s outburst and outrageous demands. It seems that I may have been right because all the big-name stars of Hungarian swimming, with the exception of Hosszú, bombed in Rio. I’m talking about people like László Cseh, Dániel Gyurta, Dávid and Evelyn Verrasztó, and Éva Risztov.

Here is a recap of the performance of those Hungarian swimmers whom Origo described as the big guns. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was László Cseh (31), whose great ambition was to beat Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly. He was second to Phelps in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Last year at the 2015 Aquatic Championships, Cseh won a gold medal in the 200m butterfly ahead of Chad le Clos, the nemesis of Phelps at this year’s Olympics. After swimming well in the semifinals, he ended up seventh when it counted. On the other hand, a promising Hungarian swimmer, the 19-year-old Tamás Kenderesi, who didn’t train with the big guns, received the bronze medal in the event.

Mark Phelps and László Cseh after it is all over

Mark Phelps and László Cseh after it’s all over

Or there is Dániel Gyurta (27), who as a 15-year-old won a silver medal in the men’s 200m breaststroke at the 2004 Summer Olympics. In 2012 in London he won the gold medal and set a new world record in the event. In Rio he ended up sixteenth in the 100m and seventeenth in the 200m.

The story of the Verrasztó siblings is not pretty either. Dávid Verrasztó (28), after ending up twelfth in the heats for the 400m individual medley, packed up and left for home. He was a no-show for the 200m individual medley. The same Verrasztó received the gold medal in the 400m medley in the 2016 European Championships in London. His sister Evelyn (27) ended up twenty-eighth in the 200m freestyle. In the 2016 European Championships she received gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay. Although she was supposed to swim the first leg of the 4x200m freestyle relay in Rio, a team event that will include Hosszú, she also packed up and left.

And finally there is Éva Risztov (31), several times European champion and gold medal winner at the 2012 London Olympics. She ended up #14 in the 800m freestyle.

I should mention a lesser light, Boglárka Kapás (23), who swims tonight in the 800m freestyle. In the heats she was second, seven seconds behind Katie Ledecky.

Then there is the disqualification of five Hungarian swimmers from the games. Here’s what happened. A new FINA bylaw states the “all swimmers brought to the Games for relays must actually compete” for a medal. Tamás Gyárfás, president of the Hungarian Swimming Association, claims that the rule was badly worded, and therefore he is appealing the judgment. Others, however, for example one of the vice-presidents, state that they understood the rule and were planning to use the five swimmers in the semi-finals, but on the spot plans changed. Whatever the case, this is not a pretty story.

According to some people in the know, there is a simple explanation for why this “misunderstanding” happened. This year’s Hungarian swim team was the biggest of all time. Thirty-six swimmers traveled to Rio. The members of the relay teams, five men in all, were added because in this way more coaches could be included in the group. Of course, it is possible that this interpretation of what happened has no basis in fact whatsoever, but there is always the suspicion that the Hungarians tried to fool FINA.

As people speculate about the secret of Katinka Hosszú’s success (the speculations naturally include performance enhancing drugs and her allegedly abusive husband-coach), many “experts” are coming to the conclusion that Hosszú was most likely right: there is something wrong with the training as well as the state of Hungarian swimming facilities, which apparently are falling apart. In the cases of Cseh, Gyurta and the Verrasztó siblings, perhaps psychological preparedness is what was missing. András Hargitay, the chief coach, also suspects that his swimmers’ complete collapse at such weighty meets as the Olympic Games is due to psychological factors. It is of little consolation that, as Hargitay told Origo, “at home during training [both Gyurta and Cseh] can produce times with which they could easily get gold medals at the Olympics.” Training times don’t count.

What is missing perhaps, in addition to modern training methods and state-of-the-art facilities, is participation in frequent international meets. Hosszú, in contrast to her fellow Hungarian swimmers, entered every possible meet all over the world prior to the Olympics and thereby acquired a more relaxed attitude toward competition. The chief coach of the Hungarian swim team, however, still doesn’t see Hosszú’s strategy as a partial remedy for the uptight Hungarian swimmers. He believes that Hosszú’s success is due to the fact that her coach is her husband, which is a very special relationship that cannot be replicated by others.

I have the feeling that once this Olympic Games is over there will be plenty of soul searching in the Hungarian Swimming Association and a lot of blame leveled against the present leadership.

August 11, 2016

Orbán giveth and Orbán taketh away

In April 2015 I wrote a post about the Modern Cities Project that Viktor Orbán came up with, most likely because Fidesz had lost a number of by-elections and had thus fallen short of its comfortable supermajority in parliament. It was time to offer all sorts of material incentives to larger Hungarian cities known as “megyei jogú városok,” which simply means that they also take care of the business of the counties in which they are situated, although not all of them are county seats.

Orbán began a roadshow, visiting city after city. At each place he visited he offered fabulous amounts of money for road construction and all sorts of other projects, many of them having something to do with sports. The most ambitious part of the plan was the modernization of the infrastructure of the entire country, which included converting all of the highways connecting these cities to “motorways” or superhighways. At the time the cost of the package was estimated to be 1,000-1,200 billion forints.

According to the latest estimate, the promise tsunami of the prime minister was much greater than originally estimated. Thus far he has visited only 13 cities of the 23, and 1,200-1,500 billion forints has already been pledged.

Valasz.hu has done an excellent job of collecting all the available data about the Modern Cities Project. Its reporters came to the conclusion that only 80 billion forints has actually arrived at the 13 municipalities. Considering that the deadline for the original plan was 2018, it is unlikely that many gift packages will be delivered to these cities anytime soon.

The latest piece of good news was announced on July 22. The government made some important decisions regarding much needed improvements on M1 and M7. Both are very busy roads on which traffic jams are frequent. M1, which is a two-lane “motorway,” will be widened between Budapest and Győr to become a three-lane road. The same thing will happen on M7 between Budapest and Balatonvilágos.

But a week later, on a Friday afternoon, came the surprise: the projects on M1 and M7 are off. Moreover, road construction around Veszprém was scrapped, as was the construction of a four-lane highway between Budapest and Kecskemét. The last was totally unexpected since only a month ago Mercedes announced plans to expand its factory in Kecskemét. The government has also reneged on promises for new or widened roads around Sopron, Szolnok, Békéscsaba, Ózd, Győr, and Esztergom.

Still, a fair number of projects remain on the books. According to a list provided by portfolio.hu, they are mostly construction projects on roads that connect Hungary with neighboring countries. These projects fall within the European Union’s so-called “Integrált Kölekedésfejlesztési Operatív Program” (IKOP), designed to facilitate efficient international travel through a network of roads across Europe. They can therefore be financed by the European Union. Roads promised to certain cities, however, like the ones around Veszprém, Sopron, or Kecskemét, that serve only local needs must be financed by the Hungarian government. And it is becoming increasingly evident, despite the Orbán government’s boastful comments to the contrary, that the state coffers are not exactly overflowing.

Scrapping the project to widen M1 and M7 may also mean that Viktor Orbán is reconsidering his dream of hosting the Olympic Games in 2024. This road construction was among the infrastructural changes deemed necessary for the feasibility study to be submitted to the International Olympic Committee. Next year’s World Aquatics Championship in Budapest, which the government agreed to host after Mexico changed its mind, has turned out to be a very expensive undertaking. The original cost estimate has already doubled, and we are nowhere near the end of all the necessary construction projects. Perhaps the growing price tag of the Aquatics Championship has tempered Orbán’s enthusiasm for the Olympics.

The media, which as far as I remember didn’t spend much time questioning the feasibility of the promises Viktor Orbán made during his road show, which lasted almost a year and a half, has now discovered that “Orbán’s promises about the future of modern cities were no more than a fairy tale.” A blog writer called the program “a gigantic hoax” because to the very last minute the waves of promises continued unabated when the government already knew that no money was available for the projects.

Indeed, Magyar Idők reported at the beginning of June that “the implementation of the Modern Cities Program” would begin soon and that it would be “the largest investment program of the century.” According to the mayor of Kaposvár, 452 billion forints has been put aside in the 2017 budget for the program. These investments will mean such robust economic development in the regions, counties, and cities that “in Hungary everybody will be able to work who wants to.”

fairy tale

What kind of governance is going on in Hungary where two major road construction projects are announced one day and a week later the decision is reversed? What could have happened during this week? The most obvious explanation is that it was discovered that there is simply not enough money for all the projects promised. But did the government really not know that on July 22? Perhaps one day we will have the answer. At the moment there is only bafflement.

August 6, 2016

János Széky on secrets of the past well kept

I’m  pleased to be able to publish this essay by János Széky, whose writings on politics I have admired for years. János Széky is a man of many talents. He was originally known for his translations of the works of such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Mary Renault, Nathanael West, and Norman Mailer. Around 2006 he began writing on politics. He has a regular column in Élet és Irodalom, but one also finds his articles in several other highly respected publications. Last year he published his collected essays on politics that had originally appeared on Paraméter, a Hungarian-language internet site from Slovakia. It was titled Bárányvakság: Hogyan lett ilyen Magyarország? “Bárányvakság” is the Hungarian equivalent of Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a rare eye disease that results in blindness (“vakság”). “Bárány” when it stands alone means sheep or lamb. This compound word gives us a fair idea of what Széky had in mind when he opted for this title.

♦ ♦ ♦

baranyvaksagThe story of a veteran swimming coach and a retired industrial manager enthralled the Hungarian public for five full weeks through April and May, overshadowing more direct and more important political issues. There have been some aftershocks since, but basically the case is closed by now, so we can draw the conclusions with a measure of confidence. While the story and the response was emblematic and even politically relevant in several ways, it seems difficult to explain the backgrounds to anyone who is not intimate with the depths of the Hungarian national psyche. I will try.

On April 5, 2016 two obscure, sub-tabloid websites, specializing in sensational crime stories, broke the news that László Kiss, 75, head coach (official title: “Federal Captain”) of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, had raped a young girl in a backroom (a “service apartment”) of the National Sports Swimming Pool in 1961. He and his two associates were finally convicted in 1962, and released from prison in 1963.

Thirty-six days passed, then on May 11 Kiss, who had by then resigned from captaincy, met his victim, Zsuzsanna Takáts, 73, in the office of the latter’s lawyer. There, in front of the cameras of Hungary’s largest TV channel, he presented her a bouquet of flowers, asking for, and being given, forgiveness. (But, as Ms. Takáts remarked later, forgetting would be more difficult.)

What took place between the two dates was a real drama, full of mysteries, twists and turns. A huge public debate arose. What made it all the more strange was that the usual dividing lines were blurred; defenders and attackers of Kiss came from both the government’s and the opposition’s side. Not even gender solidarity mattered, as in the social media some liberal-minded women stood up for Kiss, only to be reprimanded by men from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

So why was it so important? Why was it political after all? How come it became news again, 54 years after the court’s judgment was made public? Why did it end more or less abruptly with such a theatrical gesture, while many of the details remained uncovered?

A nation of Olympic addicts

First of all, Kiss is not just a successful swimming coach. His name was largely unknown even among sports fans until late September 1988, when at the Seoul Olympics his trainee Krisztina Egerszegi won the 200 meters backstroke. It was a symbolic moment: the 14-year-old, small and slender Hungarian girl, nicknamed “Egérke” (Little Mouse), beat the wardrobe-sized East German swimmers almost effortlessly (back then, it was only rumored that they had been pumped up on steroids under State Security supervision). Watching television, or listening to the radio commentator’s ecstatic cries: “There’s no such thing! And still there is!,” we all saw it as a triumph of sheer Hungarian talent, charm, and ingenuity over raw Teutonic physical power in the obedient service of a hardline dictatorship.

Note the date: September 25, 1988. Glasnost and perestroika were in full swing in the Soviet Union, but the East European revolutions were still a year away. Hungary was considered a model state in the region, way ahead of the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The institutional and legal foundations of market economy had already been laid. Relations with the West were excellent. The Young Turks of the communist party had already got rid of the old dictator János Kádár. Although most of them wanted to stop democratization before one-party rule was threatened, for many outsiders it was clear they had reached a point of no return (Fidesz, e.g., had already been formed by that time as an independent youth organization). “We are the best around” was the national feeling, and the unexpected victory in Seoul seemed to be a spectacular proof.

It was all about something deeper, however. Ever since the late nineteenth century Hungarians have been obsessed with success in sports, especially at the Olympic Games. First, while the Kingdom of Hungary was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, we had our separate national teams. So the purpose was to show that we are a separate nation, fit for the world’s stage after all the troubles. Later, after the disaster of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the successive governments, whether authoritarian or totalitarian, used Olympic successes as tools of national-collectivist propaganda to compensate for national humiliation, or lack of liberty, or relative poverty, or all of them. There has been no exception even through the democratic period, so the Hungarian public has internalized it, and found it only natural that we are more successful in Olympic sports than larger, more powerful, or more prosperous nations. There are only a few global lists in which Hungary is near the top (such as tax level or Nobel laureates per capita, at least when country of origin is concerned), but “Olympic gold medals per million people” is the most prominent among them. Here Hungary is an all-time second. And although there are some traditional specialties like fencing or kayak and canoe, nowadays swimming is the only “big sport” (attracting media attention and therefore much money) in which Hungary can still produce world stars.

Out of prison, back to the elite

So one of the first responses to the revelation was that evil and unpatriotic forces wanted to sabotage our swimmers’ successes in Rio. The reason why it was not the only immediate response as would have been natural in such cases was threefold.

First: Many people interpreted it as a covert attack against Tamás Gyárfás, chairman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, whom no one actually likes, and many people would like to see resign. So, unlike in other scandals concerning revered celebrities, a large part of the public tended to give some credit to the news from the very first moment. Second: Kiss’s status had already been weakened somewhat when Katinka Hosszú, the biggest star in Hungarian swimming, and her American husband/coach Shane Tusup humiliated him last January. At a press conference she publicly refused Gyárfás’s offer of c. $45,000 in exchange for taking part in the 2017 World Championship’s publicity campaign. She tore the contract in two and denounced the HSF for providing pitiful Stone Age training conditions to swimmers. Kiss tried to approach her to say some conciliatory words or to ask for an explanation, but Tusup dragged her away before the head coach could reach her. Later it was said that Hosszú would never listen or talk to Kiss during the previous weeks (no one knew exactly why). Kiss resigned immediately (recently there have been hints that he was aware of the danger looming ahead, so this could have been a convenient way of leaving the public stage), but Viktor Orbán himself persuaded him to stay. So he revoked his resignation – for the time being.

Finally, public opinion was divided from the very first moment because it had been sensitized to the issue of poolside sexual offenses by a best-selling book in 2013, in which former swimming champion Nikolett Szepesi described how at the age of 13 she, as well as other young girls, were molested by a masseur, and forced to keep silence by people around the HSF. So when the news broke about Kiss, a lot of people’s automatic first reaction was, “How could they allow this man to work with underage girls?”

Pieces of additional information and disinformation emerged immediately. It “became known” that the victim had died some time ago; that her father was a high-ranking state security officer, otherwise the three young men would not have been sentenced (all false). Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist very popular among left-wing audiences, said he knew the case, and the three young swimmers were handsome, easy-going Lotharios (kind of true), while the girl “just liked to screw around” (false), there was no rape (false), and the young men were framed (false). Aczél had been a regular contributor to Hungary’s largest political daily Népszabadság for 25 years; after this blatant example of sexist victim-blaming they would not hear of him any more.

At least one newspaper acquired the documents of the trial from the archives and began to leak out reliable information in small doses, until Attila Péterfalvi, chairman of the National Authority of Data Protection and Freedom of Information, blocked access to the archived and hitherto public documents, using a legal loophole. It was not clear whose data he wanted to protect.

There were some obvious signs of manipulation. People from the Olympic swimming community said that “in the world of the pools everybody knew,” but would not say why they never shared this knowledge with the wider public. Websites published photocopies of the Hungarian Telegraph Agency’s report on the 1962 judgments, and even an AP report that reached the American press. Kiss’s defenders said this was evidence that nothing had been secret about it. What the defenders deliberately ignored was the fact that this happened in 1961-62, when there was no Internet with search engines, so if one did not remember a two-inch story from the back pages of a newspaper, they could only go to a library to find the piece in the back copies; but if they did not remember, they did not know what to look for in the first place.

Moreover, it happened in communist Hungary, where there was no press freedom. So, on the one hand, the press did not cover the truth or everything that could have been interesting for the general public. (Two of the most notorious but unreported sex scandals of the age involved actors, who were not sent to prison, just disappeared from Budapest theatres for a while, and there was nothing about the real background in the newspapers.) On the other hand, it was unimaginable that a journalist would follow the trail of someone sent to prison without a directive coming “from above.” So what the authorities did was simply unremembering the case: never talking about it again, so everybody duly forgot it who was not “in” on it.

Kiss served 20 months in prison, but this fact was obliterated from the known universe. It was not included in Ki kicsoda, the Hungarian version of Who’s Who, where they (that is, he) falsified the facts and “pasted over” the prison term, saying he was an athlete of Ferencvárosi Torna Club until 1961, and in 1962 switched to another club called Budapesti Spartacus; while in reality he was expelled from Ferencváros in 1961 and was released from prison only in 1963 (at least if that piece of information is true). It was not included in the Wikipedia article nor in his professional biography (Csurka, Gergely, Az edzőfejedelem [The Prince of Coaches], Ringier, Budapest, 2012; the author is now the spokesman of the Hungarian Swimming Federation). When the scandal broke, Gyárfás was ridiculed for triumphantly saying that it was not a secret, “anyone can read it on Wikipedia.” In fact, the text of the article had been edited earlier that day.

There was also confusion about the circumstances of Kiss’s release. In his own version, he was set free with the sweeping Great Amnesty. This was proclaimed in March (officially April) 1963, after secret talks with the U.S. State Department, and resulted in setting free many people imprisoned for taking part in the revolution of 1956. The Hungarian communist authorities did not want it to look like a political retreat, so they extended the amnesty to many non-political criminals who served lighter sentences. Kiss was sentenced to three years at the second instance; he was incarcerated in October 1961; by the amnesty order he should have been released after two years, in October 1963. He won, however, the bronze medal in 200 meters butterfly stroke at the National Championship that year, which was held in late summer. So, counting in the training period, he must have been released several months before October. He himself said he spent 20 months in prison; that would have ended in June. So either there was some other intervention on his behalf, or Kiss lied.

It was a living legend, Éva Székely, Olympic champion at Helsinki, the pioneer of the butterfly stroke, who gave the key to this riddle. She said now that she had wanted to take “this talented boy” out of prison, so she went to a very high-ranking party functionary and asked for his release. That functionary was most probably Béla Biszku, who died six days before this scandal broke out. He was the last surviving member of Kádár’s original junta, overseeing state security as well as prisons – and sports. So what Székely herself revealed was nothing less than that she had facilitated the extralegal release of a condemned rapist by using her own prestige, and asking one of the most hated figures of the communist dictatorship for a favor. In any democracy, such a revelation would have ruined her morally overnight. But as it happened in Hungary, no such response came. This is a perfect illustration of three specific features of Hungarian political thinking: nationalist emotions can override all other considerations such as the issue of dictatorship v. democracy; some people, including star athletes, are not just privileged but beyond any political, legal, or moral scrutiny; and finally, these conditions have not changed a bit since 1963.

That Kiss could continue where he had left off in1961 meant that he was not simply released as early as possible, but that he was immediately retaken to the ranks of a privileged elite within the party-state. Meanwhile, the heroes and legends of 1956 were confined to low-paid, menial jobs. (If they could find a job at all.) In 1965 Kiss quit competitive swimming and became the head coach of Spartacus. The next year he was “given individual pardon” by the Hungarian Presidential Council, which meant a clean criminal record, and being eligible for a “service passport”, which meant he could visit most countries in the world anytime, expenses covered. This at a time when ordinary citizens could travel to the West every third year; and for spending money they were allowed to buy a mere 70 dollars high above the official exchange rate – that is, if their request for a passport was not refused for being “harmful to public interest,” as was the norm for people with a 1956 background.

Dark non-secrets

The main argument of the defense of Kiss was that he “created something unique,” with which he more than atoned for his crime. This was not true for two reasons. On the one hand, there was nothing special about him for 18 years after his release, until he had the luck of meeting a really unique talent in the person of seven-year-old Egerszegi. On the other hand, the method which created world and Olympic champions out of teenagers was not his invention. The merit belonged Tamás Széchy (1931-2004), who, from 1967 on, began to train young boys (many of them under the age of ten) with sadistic brutality. Apart from the extraordinarily heavy training load, he kicked them, beat them with bare hands and a massive stick, humiliated them, and abused them verbally. The children were too young to protest (and did not know it was abnormal in the first place), while the parents approved, partly because the atmosphere in many families was just as authoritarian, partly because they saw it as a way to fame and national glory, and partly because in the world of “socialist” sports, the success of the minors meant privileges and material rewards for the parents as well. And the results duly came: after a long slump between 1952 and 1973, one of Széchy’s trainees, 17-year-old András Hargitay, won a gold medal at the first World Swimming Championship in Belgrade.

What Kiss and other second-rank coaches did was to stick to the inhuman training load without Széchy’s sadistic antics (for which today he would be put in prison), while still retaining much of the original abuse of power, though “mildly” enough by now to apply to girls as well. Until 1988, however, Széchy was the swimming coach in the eyes of the public (who knew nothing about his methods), and many people were just surprised that there was another successful coach around. It had the overtones of dethronement.

The day after the old story came to light, on April 7, the Presidency and the Trainers’ Commission of the HSF unanimously voted for the Federal Captain to stay. While sticking to the “crime-punishment-redemption” theme (“I was given a chance, and I used it,” referring to his later successes as a coach), Kiss himself also suggested that he had been framed. On the next day, however, he resigned not only from the captainship but from his position of deputy mayor in the city of Százhalombatta as well (the local swimming pool was also named after him). This was preceded by a large sponsor withdrawing its support from HSF and also criticism from the local government of Százhalombatta, which happens to be dominated by Fidesz. The debate cut across political lines. The “swimming profession” rallying to his defense was not enough. The original websites which disclosed the news also promised new pieces of information, not too subtly hinting at Kiss’s alleged involvement with State Security (while they themselves have been accused of the same). This is another Hungarian specialty: as there has been no thorough State Security lustration like in Czechia, Slovakia, or Germany, and “the public’s right to know” has been largely denied in these issues, there seems to be (or by all signs there is), a large blackmail database 26 years after the demise of the communist régime, out of which compromising facts can be culled whenever it is profitable for its users.

Kiss also announced that he would seek a retrial, so as to clear his name. This is one of the more obscure chapters of the story. Everybody could have told him his chances were less than slight. Who on earth could have advised him to do such a thing, and why? Kiss seems to have been certain that the victim had died, but who could have told him that?

The scandal dragged on. Apart from moral and gender issues, the debate revolved around Endre Aczél’s victim-blaming version (showing that the Hungarian public is much more liberal, after all, than politicians like to think) and also around the theory that the real target was Tamás Gyárfás, the chairman of HSF. Gyárfás is something of an anomaly in the Fidesz system. Originally a sports journalist, in 1989 he started a media company to sponsor a morning political magazine within the state television’s program. The money came from a businessman György Bodnár, returning from the U.S. to Hungary, whom Gyárfás met during his stay in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games (which Hungary, as well as all Warsaw Pact countries except Romania, boycotted). Bodnár served some time in prison in the U.S. in the 1970s. When in 1994 the weekly magazine HVG asked if he had some ties to the Los Angeles Hungarian Mafia, he said he had no knowledge “of any serious Hungarian group of organized crime operating there.” (It is clear that this network consisted of criminals exported from Hungary from the late 1960s on; and, of course, it had State Security ties.) But that’s another far-reaching story. Anyway, though Gyárfás himself never belonged to the ranks of real oligarchs, his morning magazine Nap-Kelte (‘Sun-Rise’) survived all governments in spite of its definitely left-wing orientation and shabby production, even after Fidesz decided to boycott it in late 2006. It finally ceased to exist in September 2009, half a year before the all-important 2010 elections.

Meanwhile, Gyárfás became one of Hungary’s most important sports officials. He was elected to be chairman of HSF in 1993, and in 2006 he even tried to grab the presidency of the Hungarian Olympic Committee from Pál Schmitt, who was Fidesz’s vice-president back then and later became President of Hungary. (Rumors say the boycott of Nap-Kelte was Fidesz’s revenge for the HOC coup attempt.) And Gyárfás is still in the position now, a year before the 2017 World Aquatic Championships, which involves a $320 million investment. With that much money around, and Fidesz politicians and cronies literally occupying all the important federations and clubs, it would only be logical if Fidesz wanted to get rid of Gyárfás, whom, for some reason, no one has been able to remove from his throne at HSF yet.

Plus ça change…

It looked like another Hungarian scandal that would die off after much excitement, when finally, on May 7, a bombshell was dropped. The victim, who was alive after all, got fed up with the lies, and with her lawyer she approached a reporter from Fókusz, a very popular news magazine program at RTL Klub.

In a harrowing interview Zsuzsanna Takáts, now a retired engineer/manager and a grandmother, recounted how 55 years ago, at 18, she was raped by the three young men taking turns. It turned out that the details were just the opposite of what was spread around. She was not a sex-crazed swimmer who “loved to screw” but a 7-stone, “underdeveloped,” performance-conscious young girl under strict family control, preparing for her university entrance exams. After the acts, during which she lost consciousness, she was told to “wash herself” with diluted vinegar. At that time she was so inexperienced that she did not realize what it was good for. Her stepfather was not a high-ranking State Security officer but a self-employed shoemaker (small entrepreneurship with fewer than ten employees was tolerated; in the economy of shortage, some of these people were quite well off, but politically they were pariahs). Instead of the powerful father moving in to punish the “Lotharios,” somebody first tried to bribe him to withdraw the accusation, and when he refused, unidentified persons beat him up. He responded stoically: it was part of the game, he said, and would not back down. It took several years for Ms. Takáts to recover mentally and physically. Later, when he saw Kiss’s successes, it was as if Kiss was a complete stranger to her.

When Kiss got news of the interview beforehand, he still said it would finally prove him innocent. By that time he had hired one of the most prestigious lawyers in Hungary, Dr. János Bánáti, chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Lawyers. Dr. Bánáti read through the documents of the original trial, watched Fókusz, and the next thing we know is that Kiss made a complete reversal: he apologized, announced that he would not push for a retrial any more, and withdrew all his claims. His name was taken off the Százhalombatta swimming pool, and he said he wanted to spend as much time as possible with his grandchildren. We cannot know whether decency, painfully missing from several episodes of this story, had finally prevailed, or if Dr. Bánáti had persuaded him to act decently after all, or if he found some details in the documents which made it advisable to forget the case as quickly as possible. RTL Klub also showed the scene with the flowers, which some people found insincere, but at least it was back to what we call European norms and normalcy.

The lesson of the story? While some things have changed for the better in Hungary since 1961, some have not changed at all. In that respect, 1989 was not a watershed. Nowadays the public is much more sensitive to any kind of violence – against women, against children. And, what had been unimaginable until this scandal broke out, people would say they don’t want Olympic gold medals at such a price. Still, it was shocking to learn that those who enjoyed undeserved privileges before 1989 would be protected well after the transition; that information deliberately withheld until 1989 could be withheld until 2016 too. In other words, to learn how much of the communist past is alive and kicking in the form of well-guarded secrets and uncontested false values. This time pure chance helped us. If the sub-tabloid website were better off financially, or if Kiss and Aczél were more decent and did not insult the victim, we would never know what Kiss did in 1961 and how it was hushed up for more than fifty years. But knowing that now, we might never know how many similarly hushed-up stories are out there in the real Hungarian universe.

May 24, 2016

MSZP and the Hungarian bid to host the Olympics in 2024

A new poll was published today, this time by the Nézőpont Intézet. It reaffirmed an earlier poll showing that Fidesz’s popularity is on the rise again, most likely due to the government’s misleading propaganda about the asylum seekers. The parties of the democratic opposition haven’t gained any new followers. The only surprise in the poll was that among potential voters MSZP and DK are neck to neck.

Of course, Nézőpont is not known for its political neutrality and therefore its results are suspect, but this time I wouldn’t be at all surprised if its finding that only 12% of potential voters support MSZP was accurate. The party is in disarray and the incompetence of its leadership is staggering.

By way of illustration, today I’m going to look at MSZP’s position on the Hungarian bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games.

It was just question of time: the idea of a Hungarian Olympics was bound to resurface. In 2001-2002 the first Orbán government eagerly supported the idea. A considerable amount of money was spent on feasibility studies, which naturally confirmed that nothing stood in the way of holding the games in Hungary. Luckily, Viktor Orbán lost the 2002 election, and with his defeat the idea died.

After Orbán’s victory in 2010, when the Fidesz leadership claimed that the country was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and that its economy was comparable to that of Greece, even the sports-crazed prime minister knew better than to float the idea of hosting the Olympic Games again. But as soon as there was one good year, which saw a growth rate of 3.6%, Orbán moved into action. A so-called non-political group, the Budapest Olympic Movement, was formed to promote the economic benefits of such an event. The people in this group all have ties to the government party. The president of the group is Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy, an economist and avid sportsman, whose great grandfather was the founder and the first president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee between 1895 and 1904. Szalay-Berzeviczy played a similar role in the 2001-2002 attempt to bring the Olympics to Hungary.

Unfortunately, most people have mighty little knowledge of the cost of hosting an Olympics. And their national pride swells at the very thought of being in the international spotlight for a couple of weeks. I suspect that the majority of the people, if asked, would support the idea.

Olympics 2024

Since most of the events would take place in Budapest, the city council had to vote on whether they would stand behind the games. Given the composition of the city council, it was not surprising that the final vote was 25 to 1 with one abstention. Antal Csárdi, the single LMP member of the council, voted against it, while DK’s Erzsébet Gy. Nagy abstained. That meant that the MSZP members of the council and Gergely Karácsony, the sole PM mayor in Budapest, voted with Fidesz for the Olympics. I heard Csaba Horváth’s feeble explanation of his decision, in which he called attention to the long overdue infrastructure projects that the games would bring to the capital. I haven’t seen Karácsony anywhere since.

Most people who consider the whole idea suicidal could barely recover from their surprise that MSZP would lend its name to the project. But in the next few days the number of MSZP politicians supporting Orbán’s megalomaniac idea multiplied. László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, opted to follow the lead of the Budapest socialist leaders who by then included Ágnes Kunhalmi, the Budapest chairman. I used to think highly of Kunhalmi, until I heard her say that “the concept of a profitable Olympics is not well known” because the government hasn’t publicized it. A profitable Olympics? Surely, Kunhalmi didn’t spend any time reading up on the subject. The truth is that even a cursory look at economic analyses of the Olympic Games shows that, with one possible exception, they were losing propositions.

At this point, most people figured that MSZP would support the government party and vote for the bill in parliament to empower the country to proceed with its application. But then came the bombshell. Zoltán Gőgös, deputy chairman of the party, announced that the socialists would refuse to support the bill. Total chaos. Obviously, party discipline is not a socialist strength. Even members of the top leadership don’t seem to talk to each other before they speak publicly or vote on issues. When Gőgös was asked by György Bolgár how such a situation could possibly develop, Gőgös’s only answer was that no decision was made by the leadership until the issue reached parliament. Again, a feeble answer to a botched up affair. How can such a party possibly compete against a disciplined Orbán-led Fidesz?

I have neither time nor space to reproduce the government’s propaganda list of the benefits of holding the games in Hungary. But no matter what the government argues, the reality is that Olympic Games are not money-makers. Even Szalay-Berzeviczy is hard pressed to come up with an economically profitable Olympics. The one exception may be the 2012 London Olympics. Common wisdom holds that the games boosted the UK economy by £9.9bn, but not everybody agrees with this assessment. Sports economist Stefan Szymanski said that coming up with exact figures is “almost like a bit of creative accounting.” Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Resarch, said that attributing the economic growth to the Olympics was “a little far-fetched to say the least.”

The New York Times published an article titled “Does Hosting the Olympics Actually Pay Off?” The answer is no. According to the article, “there is strikingly little evidence that such events increase tourism or draw new investment. Spending lavishly on a short-lived event is, economically speaking, a dubious long-term strategy. Stadiums, which cost a lot and produce minimal economic benefits, are a particularly lousy line of business. (This is why they are usually built by taxpayers rather than by corporations.)”  The author quotes an economist who has studied the impact of sporting events, who said: “the bottom line is every time we’ve looked–dozens of scholars, dozens of times–we find no real change in economic activity.”

Another article’s author asks, “Do the Olympic Games generate profits?” And the answer: “No. Unfortunately, they do not.” And who said that? Robert Barney, head of the International Center for Olympic Studies. According to him, “no city has profited in the long run from its hosting role in a purely bottom-line sense.”

Nonetheless, there are at least three MSZP members of parliament who feel so strongly about the issue that they received exemptions from voting against the bill: Ágnes Kunhalmi, László Varga (Miskolc), and Sándor Szabó (Szeged). I wish they would spend a little time learning about the economics of the Olympic Games.

World Aquatics Championship in 2017 with an eye toward hosting the Olympics in 2024

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.

President Cornel Marculescu of FINA and Viktor Orbán, March 11, 2015

President Cornel Marculescu of FINA and Viktor Orbán, March 11, 2015

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.

Viktor Orbán and FIFA’s Sepp Blatter

The international media noticed that Vladimir Putin and his sports minister warmly greeted the controversial reelection of Sepp Blatter as president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). They missed a short Hungarian-language message from Viktor Orbán on Facebook. The Hungarian prime minister wished Blatter, who was reelected for the fourth time as president of the powerful and corruption-riddled FIFA, “continued good work.” Blatter’s success was short-lived. Five days later he announced his resignation, which will take effect at an extraordinary congress, probably in December. The reason for Blatter’s change of heart is that he is being investigated by U.S. prosecutors and the FBI.

Viktor Orbán’s congratulatory note was especially curious because Sándor Csányi, president of the Magyar Labdarugó Szövetség/Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ), had earlier made it clear that Blatter would not get his vote. Why would Orbán go out of his way to make his strong support of Blatter public?

Blatter and Orbán go back a long way. I traced their cooperation to 2006, when the idea of establishing a FIFA award honoring Ferenc Puskás first came up. Apparently, the original idea wasn’t Orbán’s, but when he heard about it he moved into high gear with the help of Mrs. Puskás, who is apparently a personal friend of Blatter. The initial idea was completely reworked until, in 2009, the first Puskás Award was given to the player, male or female, judged to have scored the most aesthetically significant or “the most beautiful” goal of the year.

The Puskás Academy was heavily involved in the negotiations right up until the time, on October 20, 2009, the contract between FIFA and Mrs. Puskás, who has the right to the use of the Puskás name, was signed. It was signed in Felcsút by the great Sepp Blatter himself. Nemzeti Sport, Orbán favorite sports paper, proudly announced that Blatter’s presence was no ordinary event. Normally, such contracts are signed by one of his subordinates. Of course, Viktor Orbán, the founder of the Puskás Academy, also delivered a speech in which he declared that “this event is like a goal that delivers the victory.” Blatter received the flag of the Puskás Academy as a memento. The first time the award was presented was on December 21, 2009, at the FIFA World Player of the Year Gala, to which Viktor Orbán was invited. From this time on, Orbán has traveled to Zurich every year to be present at the award ceremony.

In 2011, when Hungary held the presidency of the European Union, Orbán took advantage of his position and visited practically all the countries of the Union. He also made an official visit to FIFA, at Blatter’s invitation, during which “he held talks” with Blatter about “the differences of opinion between FIFA and the European Union.” He promised the FIFA president that he would do his best to convince the EU to change some of the rules concerning the employment contracts of football players. At that point Blatter was seeking reelection but Orbán refused to commit himself one way or the other because, as he put it, “it is better that politics holds its distance from professional football.” He added, however, that “the world of football is not ready to have its leadership move outside of Europe.” Blatter’s challenger was Mohamed Bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Confederation.

In 2012 Orbán convinced Blatter to hold FIFA’s 64th congress in Budapest. Hungary had hosted this event only twice before in the 108-year history of FIFA: in 1909 and in 1930. Sándor Csányi, Orbán’s appointment really, had just become president of MLSZ, and in his speech he talked about the fantastic achievements of the previous two years of Hungarian football. “Yearly, we build 200 football fields, 1,000 amateur clubs receive financial help, and the number of amateur football players has grown by 20%.” Blatter, for his part, thanked the Hungarians for making the congress a great success. A bit later Orbán received a thank you note from Blatter in which he praised Orbán’s speech at the opening of the congress. Blatter especially liked Orbán’s remark that “fair play is strength, not weakness.”

Pál Schmitt, Sepp Blatter, and Viktor Orbán in 2009 at the Puskás Award ceremony

Pál Schmitt, Sepp Blatter, and Viktor Orbán in 2009 at the Puskás Award ceremony

Orbán’s close relationship with Blatter has had its advantages. For example, he receives invitations from FIFA to attend the world championships, where he can watch the games from the VIP section. He hasn’t missed one since 1998. Although he has to pay for his airfare, all other expenses are covered by FIFA. In Brazil his  son, Gáspár, even accompanied him and sat next to him in the VIP section, right beneath Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel.

Hungary will host the 2020 European Championship at the rebuilt Puskás Stadium in Budapest. The stadium will look impressive, as the pictures in an English-language article in portfolio.hu amply demonstrate. The stadium, according to Orbán, will be part of a larger center for Olympic sports. Yes, in the last few months the idea of bidding for the Olympic games in 2024 has resurfaced. In 2017 Hungary will host the world championship organized by FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation), which is responsible for administering international competitions in aquatics. That event will cost Hungarian taxpayers 45 billion forints. Many Hungarians ardently hope that Budapest will not win the right to hold the Olympic Games in Budapest because that will truly be beyond the financial capabilities of the country. As it is, the 2017 FINA world championship was awarded to Hungary unexpectedly. The original winner, Guadalajara in Mexico, withdrew in the last moment. The reason: the price of oil fell and they could no longer afford it. The president of FINA praised Hungary and Orbán “as friends in a difficult moment.”

Orbán’s lofty ideas about sports and fair play sound less than genuine in view of his own political career and personal life. “Sports give a chance for us to understand how to win in a fair way and how to accept defeat with some respect!”

I’m almost certain that Orbán has his heart set on hosting one of the future World Cups. Most likely he believed that Blatter’s presidency would give him an edge. And that extra advantage is needed since Hungary’s ranking in the world of football is very low: forty-third out of fifty. It will be interesting to watch how Orbán navigates a newly reformed and reconstructed FIFA.