Swimming, judo, football, handball, athletics, cycling… Athletes could almost take up residence in Hungary, as the country has opened its arms wide to international sports competitions, especially in the last five years. Even the Giro is concerned: this year’s last Giro d’Italia got Hungarian accents during the first three stages, before coming to Sicily. The World Swimming Championships are the latest example. They start on Saturday, June 18 at the Duna Arena in Budapest, hosting the World Championship in the discipline in 2017 and the European Championship in 2021.
This accumulation of events is the result of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s sports diplomacy. After an initial term from 1998 to 2002, the politician made sports a national strategic sector when he came to power in 2010. “He uses sport as a way to rekindle national pride and gain international prestige.” summarizes Bence Garamvölgyi, a Hungarian researcher who devoted his dissertation to Viktor Orban’s sports diplomacy. In 2017, the Hungarian government funded the organization of 113 international sporting events.
In this, the conservative leader imitates some of his predecessors. In the 1950s and 1960s, communist Hungary already made use of sports and invested in top athletes to “improve his image and assert his superiority, as East Germany did”, says Bence Garamvölgyi. The researcher points out that his country likes to present itself as a “sport nation”, highlighting the record number of Olympic medals at the Summer Games per capita. Traditionally, Hungary, a founding member of the International Olympic Committee in the 19th century, has particularly excelled in fencing, wrestling, swimming and canoeing.
Viktor Orban is committed to the development of high-level sports, the construction and renovation of sports infrastructure and the co-organization of competitions. It also aims to place Hungary at the heart of international federations, in order to best represent the country’s interests. “On the other hand, nothing is introduced regarding basic sports or physical activity, while Hungarians are not known to be active. There is also no social logic behind this policy,” accurate Bence Garamvolgyic†
The Prime Minister is playing on the national fiber to justify the cost. “This policy of national pride takes on special proportions because of the trauma experienced by the Hungarians as a result of the loss of power and part of the territory after World War I,” notes Lukas Macek, director of Sciences Po Dijon and political scientist specializing in Central and Eastern Europe. Sport is then seen as a source of joy and a means to show success.
With numerous Hungarian communities in neighboring countries (a legacy of the war), Viktor Orban also uses sport to “unite all Hungarians”, guarantees Bence Garamvolgyic† As part of his dissertation, the researcher noted that the Hungarian government spent 45 million euros between 2013 and 2018 on football academies in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. At the inauguration of one of these complexes in Serbia, Viktor Orban then stated that sport was “the common language of Central Europe”†
But in the country, this expensive policy towards the sports sector is not unanimous. “The call for national pride resonates very much in the hearts of its voters. Otherwise, Hungary is a very polarized country. Whatever the subject, there will be a very strong form of support or rejection, according to whether the person is for or against Orban”, notes Lucas Macek. As for the government economic spin-off argument, Bemce Garmavölgyi points out “there is no scientific evidence” support this statement.
“As far as the image of the country is concerned, it is clear that Hungary is still seen as an ultra-nationalist nation on the scale of the European Union,” continues the Hungarian researcher. Sports diplomacy is especially in the crosshairs of associations such as Transparency International. She is suspected of being a source of corruption.
In the past, popular pressure once caused Viktor Orban to relapse. Dreaming of seeing Budapest as the host of the Olympics, the Momentum movement, which has become the main opposition force against the Fidesz (ruling party), gathered 260,000 signatures to support the organization of a referendum on Budapest’s candidacy in 2024. to demand. Concerned about his majority, Viktor Orban preferred to withdraw the file rather than consult his fellow citizens.
“The Olympic Games can only be organized within the framework of national unity. Hungary had a historic chance to win the right to host the Olympic Games, but we were unable to present the national unity it took,” he said. the Prime Minister regretted in the columns of the pro-government Hungarian sports newspaper Nemzeti Sport after the Tokyo Games.
After seven failed candidacies in the country’s history, Viktor Orban remains hopeful that one day his ultimate goal will come true. “Hosting the Games remains an eternal dream for Hungarians. The potential, the love and importance of sport, national feeling, economic power, culture, it is all there and will remain,” supported the head of state, who, despite the withdrawal of the candidacy for 2024, called for the completed construction of the infrastructure necessary for an Olympic fortnight.
At a time when applications for the Games are becoming increasingly rare, Hungarian sports diplomacy is important for the high Olympic spheres. During a visit to Budapest in early May, IOC Vice-President Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. encouraged the country to try its luck again, as can be seen in videos. (in English) published on the website of the Hungarian National Olympic Committee: “Go for it! You have the passion for it, the athletes, the experience, an extraordinary government that loves sports. Few countries in the Old Continent would be better suited to host the Games than Hungary.” Are we going after Brisbane (Australia) in 2032 towards Budapest 2036?