The right and the left on Hungarian achievements in London

I managed to avoid commenting on the Olympics for two solid weeks, but perhaps on the last day I ought to say something about the games in general, the Hungarians’ performance in particular, and the political sparring between left and right over the Olympics and its significance.

A couple of decades ago I was an avid follower of Olympic events but eventually I became disillusioned. I wasn’t sure any longer about the rationale of it all. I’m sure that Baron Pierre de Coubertin would be greatly surprised if he could see what happened to his original idea. It is becoming clear that individual achievement often fades in favor of national glory. It is considered to be practically a tragedy if a long favored “national” sport is lost to others.

I also worry about those people who spend ten or twelve hours a day doing whatever they must be doing. Personally, I would prefer spending money on encouraging healthful exercise in moderation for as many people as possible as opposed to giving it to clubs training athletes who devote their young lives to competing at international meets.

Anyway, here are the statistics. Hungary is in fourteenth place with eight gold, four silver, and five bronze medals. That is a much better result than even the most optimistic fans predicted. It is especially good when we consider that the populations of the first thirteen countries are much larger than Hungary’s.

So, let’s move over to the political aspects of this year’s Olympic games. The “war” between the Hungarian right and left broke out on the fifth day of the games. Right after Dániel Gyurta won the gold medal and set a new world record in the 200 meter breaststroke.

It all began with an article by Endre Aczél published in his sixteen-part series entitled “My Olympics.” Aczél is a veteran  journalist who for many years worked as a foreign correspondent for MTI, the Hungarian news agency, first in Beijing and later in the 1980s in London. He also worked for MTV and regularly writes for Népszabadság. He is quite knowledgeable about sports and has a radio program on Klubrádió on sports events of bygone years.

Endre Aczél on August 2, on his fifth day of reporting his impressions, made a remark about Dániel Gyurta’s 200m breaststroke victory. He had predicted that Gyurta would do very well in the 200m after seeing him perform in the 100m breaststroke, which is not the swimmer’s forte. However, Aczél was “rightly” worried about Michael Jamieson. He reminded his readers that Gyurta normally swims in the middle of the pack in the first 100, moves up at 150, and in the last 50 meters becomes unbeatable. This time the “choreography” was not followed. Jamieson in the last 20 meters performed the way Gyurta normally does. Aczél added, “if there had been another ten meters to swim Jamieson most likely would have won.” But, he added, “thank God it was only 200 meters and not 210.”

That remark sent the Hungarian nationalists into a frenzy even though the Associated Press, a presumably neutral source, appeared to concur with Aczél’s analysis in its report on the final seconds of that 200m competition: “Making the final turn, Gyurta seemed to be in control. Then, as he popped up and down in the water, heading for home, Gyurta suddenly felt Jamieson surging up on his right shoulder. The Olympics Aquatics Centre was in a frenzy as the two approached the wall, but Gyurta stretched out first and touched in 2 minutes, 7.28 seconds. That shaved 0.03 off the previous mark set by Christian Sprenger of Australia at the 2009 world championships in a now-banned bodysuit. Jamieson nearly broke the old mark, too, settling for silver in 2:07.43, while Ryo Tateishi of Japan took bronze in 2:08.29.”

In any case, it seems that one cannot make an objective observation about a swimming meet without being accused of not being a good enough Hungarian patriot. The right-wing media was suddenly full of critical articles about Endre Aczél.

Soon enough he had a co-traitor, Zsolt Gréczy, a close ally of Ferenc Gyurcsány, who on his blog criticized Attila Czene, a  former Olympic champion who is now a member of the Orbán government. He is undersecretary in the Ministry of Human Resources responsible for sports. In 1996 in Atlanta Czene unexpectedly received the gold medal in the 400m individual medley. In London, Czene was apparently sitting next to the commentator and kept making political comments on the side. For example, “the Orbán government made sure that athletes were prepared to be the very best.” Gréczy in my opinion rightly pointed out that when a Hungarian swimmer didn’t do well in Munich or in Montreal was it because the Kádár government didn’t give enough money to the swim clubs? Or did Czene have the Horn government to thank for his win in Atlanta? Surely, Czene’s win depended on his own talent. And Gyurta was not thinking about Viktor Orbán in the last few meters (as Czene intimated) but, as he himself admitted, about his mother. A fair criticism.

The Internet and right-wing circles were full of complaints. The first time I heard about the controversy was from an older woman, at least judging from her voice, who decided to share her outrage with the listeners of Klubrádió. By that time I had read Aczél’s article but I didn’t know anything about Gréczy’s blog. The woman made it clear that Hungary is divided into two camps:  “us” and those who are against “us.” Aczél and Gréczy certainly fall into the latter category. While she was at it, she added Klubrádió to the enemy list as well. Finally, she suggested that “if Klubrádió would make peace with us perhaps it could get a frequency.” How telling and how true.

The third controversy around Gyurta was an interview he gave to Magyar Rádió in which he declared: “I dedicate this gold medal to all my 15 million compatriots!” A right-wing English blog edited in Budapest considered Gyurta’s comment “a very nice dedication.” So did Gábor Vona, who was sending a message to those who cannot be truly happy (actually fanyalgók) .  He cried when Gyurta won the gold. What he did in London was fantastic “but what he said afterward on Magyar Rádió surpassed the gold medal. … Today a superstar was born.” Thus his nationalistic remark about the 15 million Hungarians was more important than his gold medal. There were a few who corrected the number because the truth is that the figure is closer to 13 million. But what can one expect from poor Gyurta who hears this magic 15 million day in and day out?

Finally, an opinion piece appeared in the so-called moderate right-wing magazine Heti Válasz by Bálint Ablonczy. The message of “Dániel Gyurta is a hero: Old-fashioned and ours” is that in our modern world there are no heroes. The media world turns us into nihilists. However, there is a desire to have heroes again and therefore there is “Gyurta fever” in Hungary today. Here is a young man who talks about “the simplest concepts in the whole world: hard work, effort, success, responsibility, coaches, family, and nation.” Ablonczy continues: “we wouldn’t be living in a world without heroes if  the skeptics, the attackers, the political rubberneckers, the ones who talk disparagingly about the 15 million wouldn’t be sending spume up to the surface from the morass of the Internet and the op/ed pages of the great papers.”

Yes, one could live without the Olympics very well. At least in my opinion.


  1. I just came back from Planet Hungary. I attended a big family reunion. Dozens of brothers sisters and cousins. Guess what? One of my nephews was on the Olympics!

    He was cleaning locker rooms. He is a student in Budapest and the money was great. He even took on a second shift! Hungarians are awesome!

  2. latefor :
    re: My previous comment to “Some1″ – “hypothetical” should be replaced with: imaginary
    Also, I’d like to add to my previous comment the following:
    The Olympics is a legitimate form of expression, satisfies the need of the World community which we are all part of.

    I disagree. Most athletes are exhibitionist in their own right, as much as an artist is. Films in general also “legitimate form of self-expressions”, and Film Festivals also “satisfie the need of World Community which we are all part of”. For that matter I would argue that someone who runs 150 meters (I picked this as I do not mean anything specific) would send out such a message about the problems of the world and the need to “unite” as movies, like Gate of Hell, Slumdog Millionaire, The Bridge, The Official Story, Children of Heaven, and so forth.
    In general most sportsman switches teams, and countries when the the opportunity rises. To say that doing it for the country… I am skeptical. Yes, when they win, it is a proud moment for a country, as much as a Nobel Prize or any other great honour, but do those countries also embrace all of their athletes the same way? No, they don’t, and money flows toward those who are in popular sports. We can argue if trampoline, soccer, synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, hammer throw, and swimming are valued the same.
    How about the athletes? Do they all live in Hungary? Did they all compete for Hungary all the time? How about the other athletes from other countries? Did they all compete for one country all the time? Olympics is a spectical, just like Circuses, and a great specticle too. I do not mean to belittle anyone’s performance or achievements here, but I question the emphasis. It is a political game (look at the boycotts, look at the rewards or punishments). I have a friend who missed her chance at the Olympics because of the boycott, I have a friend who won a gold, and other who participated without any medals, and a family member who decided to drop out the team because she had enough of the pressure. All different stories, different motivations, but none of them trained for their country, and the one who missed out on the Olympics because of the boycott would of choose to go with or without her country if given the chance.
    As far as theatre goes, with the occasional sexual content,r sexual references or gore.. Madach and Shakespeare were not to shy to describe events in details, and just because someone chooses to literally interpret something that does not make that director immoral, it simply means that it reaches out to a different audience. Maybe you are not part of that audience, and I did find myself in that situation with movies and theatre performances that everyone were crazy for. I have no problem watching simulated or referenced sexual content if it adds to the story (Shame, Last Tango in Paris).

  3. The Olympic propaganda seems to worked overtime, even posters on here I regarded as immune from this sort of thing seem to have been taken in. If I were Cameron, I’d call a snap election before reality starts to seep back in.

    And, strangely, I find I can be both philosophical and cheerful whilst still thinking the Olympics was just a huge circus, designed a) to keep the plebs happy and b) kid the world that the UK still matters. And, equally strangely, I can still be both philosophical and cheerful, despite having an opinion that differs from the majority. Or has that now become as big a crime in the UK as it in Orbánistan?

    Kingfisher – please don’t stop reading this blog, and please don’t stop criticising it. It is not all the people who agree with us that makes this blog worth reading, it is those few who offer a different view and make us stop and think and question our assumptions.

  4. Paul – a somewhat ridiculous reply, and a shame as I like a lot of what you post. The Olympic fortnight was great – fact. But do I credit Dave, Nick & Boris – No (though Boris does have his moments). If we have got a feelgood factor, let us enjoy it while we can – its been a difficult year otherwise.

  5. Actually Paul – reading your post again, you’re beginning to sound like a typical Magyar to be honest.

  6. Kingfisher, in a way you have addressed an important observation: people are not just black and white. I know nothing about Mr Guyrta except from what I read here from Eva and from you. But why could Mr Gyurta not buy into the nationalist ideas of Fidesz AND at the same time dedicate his medal to a colleague? Gyula Horn, who is so criticised by Fidesz to have been in the pufajkasok, had a major role in the opening up of the Iron Curtain. Viktor Orban, who seemed to be a promising liberal politician two decades back, is now working hard to send Hungary back to the Middle Ages, and still will probably be a “husband and father caring for his family, financially and otherwise”. And so forth.

    And although I share the view that Hungarians should find some common ground, it is not possible to find common ground between ANY ideas. In particular when these ideas aspire to represent the only “truth” and exlude the possibility of other valid ideas. The division of Hungarians into “left” and “right” just reflects this very general problem. It needs more respect for other ideas AND an acceptance of a level playing field. Eight gold medals and broadly shared “national joy” will not suffice to solve that, it just may reduce the criticism of Fidesz without implying any bigger cooperation or mutual understanding.

    And back to Gyurta, to dwell on the 15 million Hungarians may be considered a minor issue but what it is frequently connected to is an obstinate adherence to some 19th century ideas. Applied selectively, typically as regards the tragic fate of the Hungarian nation. In many other respects, these people are easily able to use 21th century ideas or even name other nations (as Kovach teaches us) who have also suffered strongly. (To be critical of the role of Hungarians in the past and whether they made other nations suffer is not their strong point.) And I am afraid that the country is held back by the unability to put the own history in perspective – to hold e.g. equality dear nowadays means that liberal pre-1914 Hungary will not look like lost paradise etc. To remind all of the 15 million Hungarians is a minor point, but with important consequences as if often also means a narrow perspective on specific issues about the Hungarian nation.

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