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.