The Hungarian Olympic Team arrived home on a so-called gold plane on August 24, to be celebrated by a large crowd at a reception ceremony after bringing to Budapest eight gold, three silver and four bronze medals from Rio de Janeiro.
Hungary's impressive 12th place in the overall Olympics medal table will only increase the country’s sporting pride that has been revived earlier this year thanks to the surprising success of Hungary’s football team at the UEFA European Football Championship.
Although the populist ruling Fidesz party claims that the results justify its extraordinary government spending on sport, some of the most successful athletes point to prevailing flaws in the system.
The sport fanatic Prime Minister Vitkor Orban has repeatedly claimed that sport "will restore Hungary’s self-respect”, and his governemnt has been pouring an unprecedented amount of public money into sport since it returned to power in 2010. While the majority of funds – around HUF215bn (€685mn), according to Atlatszo.hu - has been pumped into the construction of football stadiums around the country, other sports have also enjoyed sharply increased government support over the past years.
Orban announced in 2014 that sport is a "strategic sector in the eyes of the government", and offered a total of HUF130bn until 2020 to 16 sport associations. The move multiplied the associations’ budget to be spent on infrastructural developments and the training of both professionals and young talents. The Swimmer’s Association claimed, for example, that its budget was at least quadrupled thanks to the government’s decision.
While critics of Fidesz point out that the government’s extraordinary spending on sport is disproportionate compared to the heavily underfinanced education and health care sectors, political analyst Zoltan Cegledi earlier noted to bne IntelliNews that any international sport success will only reinforce the government’s belief in its policies.
Hungary’s 12th place on the overall Olympics medal table - and its 10th place if the result is adjusted for population – is indeed seen by the government as both as a source of national pride that is transposable to the stage of international politics and as a justification for government spending.
During the Olympic Team’s ceremonious reception, Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog said, for example, that “he would like to see a similar respect in Brussels as the one he saw in the eyes of people in Rio when they talked with Hungarians", local 444.hu reported from the event. Balog also added that “although he does not want to speak about politics, it was a good decision to turn sports into a high-priority strategic sector”.
Zsolt Borkai, president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, even claimed earlier this year that one of the reasons that makes Hungary a good candidate for hosting the Games in 2024 is that the country "is one of the most successful nations in the history of Olympics”. Results in Rio are likely to support this conviction, although pollster Median reported that only 41% of Hungarians support a bid to host the games.
While praising sport results, Fidesz politicians do not tend to mention that although public spending on Olympic sports increased in the past four years, the total number of medals won by Hungarians decreased from 18 at the London Olympics (also with eight golds) to 15 in Rio. In fact, since 1936 – with the sole exception of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – Hungarians always returned home with more Olympic medals than in 2016.
At the same time, although the Hungarian government has increased financial support for 16 different sport associations, it has not – at least, for now – helped to win medals in other sports than the ones that have traditionally been Hungary’s strength: fencing, swimming and canoe. Meanwhile, it seems that even those who compete in these sports are far from being completely satisfied with the support that they received from the Hungarian associations pumped up with government money.
“I don’t agree with 80% of what is happening [in the Hungarian Fencing Federation],” broke out Gyozo Kulcsar, four-time Olyimpic champion and trainer of Emes Szasz, who won Hungary’s first gold medal in fencing on the first day of the Games. “Conditions are better and there is more money in the system, but I don’t see that professionals receive enough freedom in its management” he told local Origo.hu.
Katinka Hosszu, who became the most successful Hungarian in Rio – winning three gold and one silver medal – had criticized even more harshly the the Hungarian Swimming Federation. Hosszu trained in the United States between 2008 and 2012, but after she returned to Hungary, she did not receive the necessary technical support for her preparation, she claimed.
“While the Hungarian Swimming Federation expects world class performances, the support they provide is far from world class level,” claimed Hosszu at a press conference late last year. She said that the federation did not provide her with the requested movement analysing software, neither a sport masseur or a private changing room.
The federation pledged to comply with her requests, but only if Hosszu participates in the promotion of the 2017 World Aquatics Championship. Although even Orban offered his help in January to help resolve the conflict, Hosszu tore up the proposed contract with the federation in front of journalists and decided to continue her training for the Olympics in the United States with her American husband and coach.
By now, seemingly no hard feelings remain. After Hosszu won her first medal in Rio, Orban congratulated her on Facebook. “So, we did it. Justice exists. Bravo, Katinka,” he wrote in Hungarian, adding in English: “well done, Coach!”. At the end of the post, Orban did not forget to write "Hajra magyarok!" (Go Hungarians) - the typical slogan for supporting Hungarian in sports, which, at the same, also has become a motto for supporting Fidesz.