If you have been living in isolation for the past few years it may come as a surprise to you that apparently there is something happening in London this summer called the Olympic Games. For those like me that are keen on their sporting spectacles then you will no doubt be excited and have read with interest all of the hype surrounding this particular Summer games. However, whilst the political arguments relating to the costs of hosting the games, future of the facilities, price of souvenirs or the appearance of genetically enhanced athletes ring out it is important to consider Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s vision: sport transcends politics.
Now apart from a river and a lot of bridges the similarities between Budapest and London are limited... I do not want to promote London (despite being a London boy), as I want you to spend your summer here in Budapest. I will however give you a few interesting facts relating to Hungary and the Olympic Games that may give you something to think about whilst considering visiting this fantastic city. Hungary is currently ranked 8th in the Olympic table of medals awarded with 159 Gold, 141 Silver and 159 Bronze (a total of 459 medals from 24 games that they have participated in).
Every tourist will want to see the Parliament building and capture its unique architecture from a multitude of angles but as you are exploring from the Pest side of the river be sure to stop by the Olympic Park. About 100m from Parliament (Usain Bolt will probably beat you to it if you ran there) and on the edge of the Danube you will come across a glorious little park that resembles a dog etiquette training ground; but you are in fact in the presence of an elite collection of individuals. Next to the Greek pillars on a knee height set of panels you will see inscribed the names of victorious Hungarian Olympians; each with their own sensational story to tell.
16 Gold, 10 Silver and 16 Bronze medals make the Finnish games Hungary’s most successful venture to the Summer Olympics. Gold medals in Gymnastics, Swimming, Boxing, Football, Fencing, Wrestling, Water Polo and Athletics helped secure a final position of third behind the USA and USSR and made people take heed of this central European country - a force to be reckoned with on the sporting scene.
Melbourne 1956 – The Bloodiest Water Polo Match
Aside from the fact that this was a split venue Olympic Games (the Equestrian events were held in Stockholm due to quarantine regulations 5 months earlier) there was further drama and headline creation from a number of major events that unfolded during the course of the games. On the back of the failed 1956 uprising in Hungary the Soviet Union was flexing its weight to try and re-administer its supreme rule over the Magyar nation. The appearance of the USSR at the games led to a political boycott by the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. Throughout the games the Hungarian athletes were cheered by fans from Australia and many other countries, particularly those gathered in the boxing arena when thirty-year-old Laszlo Papp won his third gold medal by beating José Torres for the light-middleweight championship.
A few days later, the crowd was with the Magyars when the Hungarian water polo team competed against the Soviet Union, a match later labeled as the ‘Blood In The Water’ match. The game became extremely violent and excessively rough, when a Hungarian was forced to leave the pool with blood streaming from a cut over his eye, a riot almost broke out in the stands and on the poolside. Order was restored and the game was called early, with Hungary leading 4–0. The Hungarian team went on to win the gold medal.
Hungary’s first Olympic champion back in 1896; when the swimming events took place in the rough Mediterranean Sea. The history of this young architect from Budapest is fascinating and truly shows what an all-rounder this athlete was. From witnessing the tragic drowning of his father in the Danube when he was 13 years old, a young Alfréd decided he had to learn to swim. Little did he know that from this family bereavement he would go on to write history in the sporting annals of not just Hungary, but the world. He first had to plead with the Dean of his University to attend the games in Athens and even after returning victorious was told that the medals did not count or interest anyone; it was his grades that mattered. Winner of two gold medals (ably assisted by smearing his body with grease to protect against the cold water) and one silver he was nicknamed the Hungarian Dolphin by the Crown Prince of Greece after replying to the question ‘Where did you learn to swim so well?’ with the retort ‘In the water.’
Hajós was also a track and field athlete, holding numerous national and European records; whilst even more amazingly was a forward in Hungary’s first-ever national Football squad (later coaching them in the 1906). After the sporting successes had finished Alfréd returned to his architecture, in particular sporting venues; his most notable building being the swimming complex on Margit-sziget, which aptly carries his name.
If you have seen the film ‘Sunshine’ featuring Ralph Fiennes you will have some idea of Attila’s sporting story and tragic death during the Second World War. Winner of a gold medal in the 1928 Antwerp games as part of the men’s Sabre team (Fencing) he was a prodigy with the foils; his mentor once referred to him as the new D’Artagnan. Attila also held a unique Fencing record up until the 1932 Olympics of winning a medal in every competition he had ever entered, unfortunately Los Angeles proved to be blight on his amazing career.
As a Jewish athlete he was afforded exemption from the treatment suffered by others in the Budapest ghetto’s and was not forced to complete hard labour. One day whilst walking through the streets of Budapest he was stopped by the police who asked to see his papers and on this particular occasion he had left a crucial piece of documentation at home. The police were not forgiving and as a result treated Attila as any other Jewish citizen; he was quickly deported to an Ukrainian concentration camp. Whilst interred (along with other Hungarian athletes) he was spotted by the Camp Commandant who had also competed for Hungary at the 1928 games in the Equestrian events. The Commandant was not forgiving of his status and instructed the guards to ‘... make things hot for the Jew.’ Taunted and ridiculed in front of the other inmates Attila was forced to strip and climb a tree before being sprayed with water. In the Ukrainian midwinter Attila stood no chance against his treatment and froze to death in the camp parade ground.
One of the greatest modern day Hungarian Olympians who is idolized within Hungary. Krisztina made her first Olympic appearance at the age of 14 in Seoul and she retired after the 1996 Atlanta games at the age of 22. She is a three time Olympian (1988, 1992 and 1996) and five time Olympic champion; and one of two individuals to have ever won the same swimming event at 3 consecutive Summer Olympics. Her gold medal at Seoul 1988 became one of the biggest TV-moments in Hungary and gave her the nickname of Egér (mouse); this originated from the phrase ‘Come on Mouse, come on little girl’ by Tamás Vitray who was the TV commentator during the race. Despite her retirement Egerszegi is still regarded as the role model of the "champion" in the country.
Post and photos by Phil Watkins