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Interview with Viktor Orbán in Nemzeti Sport

According to the Prime Minister, our performance at the Olympic Games always tells us something about the current state of our country.

Already before the Olympic Games, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said he would set his alarm to get up to watch the events in the early hours, and his passion for sports is well-known. After the majority of the executives of the Hungarian Olympic Committee and senior representatives of various disciplines already spoke about Hungary’s performance at the Olympic Games, we asked the Prime Minister what his thoughts were on the Tokyo Olympic Games, the results of Hungarian athletes and whether their performance met his expectations.

“A prime minister shouldn’t make assessments”, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told sports daily Nemzeti Sport, “because that’s not his duty; it is the duty of the leaders of sports associations and the Olympic committee. However, the Prime Minister, too, is a Hungarian, and every Hungarian tends to make assessments, including taxi drivers, hairdressers, nuclear scientists and prime ministers. A Hungarian can never get away with not having an opinion on our performance at the Olympic Games, and I too have an opinion. When I was a little boy, I followed the proceedings of the Olympic Games sitting on my grandfather’s lap sometimes in front of the radio, sometimes in front of the television. My grandfather always told me that it’s hard to conceive of anything more important than the athletes entering the field wearing the national uniform. We must watch that and we must know them because they are us. And so I have followed international sports, including Hungarian sports ever since my childhood. I observed that at the Olympic Games surprise gold medals are a rare occurrence. Those athletes tend to win at the Olympic Games who are already at the very summit of the mountain of champions. And before every Olympiad, I take stock of the events where we don’t simply have a chance to win, but where we are the ones who must win. This time, I estimated these events to be around thirteen to fourteen. And I also observed that in general around half of these become reality; we win around half of the events that we should win.”

This is just what happened more or less, but which events did you regard as winnable or must-win events?

I expected three gold medals in fencing, that we would be able to pull off the fencing sabre individual and team, and the epée fencing. I expected two in swimming, one for Kristóf Milák and one for Katinka Hosszú, who was unable to make up for the many months of delay due to the specificities of her training.

And then you stood up for her in a spectacular fashion. Why?

Because once a champion always a champion. Let everyone put their hands up in whose honour the Hungarian national anthem was played, and the Hungarian flag was hoisted at a world event. There aren’t many of them, and they deserve every respect.

OK, that’s five gold so far. Let’s continue.

I envisaged four gold medals for kayak and canoe because I thought that the girls would pull off three and Bálint Kopasz another. Sándor Tótka’s victory was a surprise for me. In sailing, too, I thought we were the best, that Zsombor Berecz was the best. In shooting, I thought we had two chances for gold, and this is also what the international press wrote, and I also expected a gold in wrestling. At the same time, the outcome of water polo and pentathlon is – by virtue of the nature of these sports, though there is a lot of hard work involved – as uncertain as a dog’s dinner.

Well, yes, most of these chances were converted into medals by our athletes who gifted us Hungarians with unforgettable moments. For a long time, we were worried about whether the Olympic Games would be held at all. In fact, many said, even in Japan, that at this time the Olympiad was not the top priority. Are the Olympic Games important for humanity and the Hungarian people, and if so, why?

Even when there is no war, nations want to compare their talents and strength; this temptation will never die out in humanity. The Olympiad is a great, peaceful, but equally merciless manifestation of this desire to compete. Science, sports and culture are the fields in which the competitive instincts of nations come to the fore in peacetime. In every nation there is a conviction that they represent something unique that no other nation represents, and that is embodied most spectacularly in champions, in winners. That which makes a person Hungarian, Romanian, American or German, for that matter. The Olympiad is especially interesting because it is the only competition to which athletes, and champions of the world adjust the cycles of their lives and careers. This is where they expend the most energy, this is the event on which they concentrate most of their attention, this is where everyone wants to be the best. Therefore, the Olympiad is a special event for peaceful competition among nations. There are countries that admit this, others less so. In the case of Hungary, the Olympiad is an unquestionable tradition. At the end of the day, what contribution can a country of ten million make to humanity? In the economy, our opportunities are limited, however, in talent the sky is the limit, it is not numbers that count, but quality, and competitiveness, determination and courage. The Hungarian nation is one of the world’s most competitive. This is also the case in the economy and in science, but it manifests itself most spectacularly in sports, and especially at the Olympic Games. In the Hungarian people’s minds, Hungarian competitiveness and the Olympic Games are closely associated. I’m not saying that it serves as a perfect measure, but our performance at the Olympic Games always tells us something about the current state of our country.

And what state do the six gold medals in Tokyo represent? It’s an open goal, but it’s double the three we won in Beijing in 2008. At the same time, as regards the total number of medals, we surpassed Sydney, Athens, London and Rio.

In Beijing, we had three champions, we had three heroes, now we have twice as many. But what’s really interesting is that in Rio it was the women who saved the nation’s honour; women won seven of the eight golds, while the men won one. This time, with the exception of one, men were responsible for all the gold medals. Once we manage to harmonise the two, we might even be able to achieve results similar to those of Helsinki. I also observed this ambivalence of Hungarian sports on this occasion. Most recently, I was quite disappointed that our men might not succeed. In the modern era, men are compelled to face so many challenges, male virtues are not respected anymore; respect for physical strength, the mental and physical strength that is necessary for showing responsibility, for caring for one’s family has disappeared almost entirely from this world. But this is exactly what drives a man, this is what his performance in sports stems from. If you take a look at the Hungarian men who won gold medals in Tokyo, you’ll see that they’re not only champions, but also male idols. Athletes, at whom we can point and tell our grandchildren that ‘you see, this is what a man looks like’. This is a man’s physical appearance, this is a man’s mental strength, this is how he fights, this is how he loves his family, and this is how he sacrifices, if needs be, ten years of his life for a cause. The Hungarians who won now did a great service to our country, and perhaps with their help we might be able to bring the male ideal back to Hungarian life. The female ideal has always been strong, in trouble we could always rely on great Hungarian women, from the women of Eger to our Olympic champions, there has never been a problem on that front.

Several of the medal-winners are military officers.

I’m sure that the rebuilding of the army, the introduction of daily physical education in schools and that our male athletes have again reached the top of the podium, combined with the fact that we have footballer role models once again, will do Hungary a world of good. All of this is a great help in the education of our children.

Isn’t it an oversimplification to come to any conclusion regarding the momentary state of the country based on the results achieved, forgetting about what went before and many other circumstances? And why do we often have the impression that over here only gold medals count, which may again appear like an insulting oversimplification?

Success in sports depends on a number of factors, including good luck, but one can never earn the title of Olympic champion without prior groundwork. Hungary’s successes are a reflection of not only of the past few years or decades, the given athlete’s preparations and previous life, or the state of the country at a given time, but equally a reflection of the past hundred years. We always regard our champions, our gold medallists as being in a separate category. This is not unjustified. Because a fourth or fifth place, a bronze medal or a silver medal is a fantastic performance; they show that the athlete is there among the best of the world. It’s to be respected, and it’s also uplifting. But a champion is a different category. The Hungarian mentality perceives this correctly. It’s one thing to be there among the best, but to be the best of the best is another. This is why the gold medal has such mythology in Hungary. And if we take a look at our Olympic champions, without exception they are fantastic individuals, all the way back to Alfréd Hajós. One of the greatest deficiencies of the present era is that we have to this day failed to build a museum for our Olympic heroes where rather than displaying objects, we recall the lives and careers of human beings. We have fantastic personalities; each of our heroes is an epic poem in themselves. This is a great debt, and we are working on accomplishing this during our next term in government, the Lord and our electors willing.

What is the significance of which sports we’re successful in?

In addition to the number of gold medals, the “breadth” of our result is also very important. What makes Hungarian sport special is its wide spectrum. We have three classical sports in which we always bring something home: swimming, fencing and kayak-canoe. Last time in Rio, we only won gold medals in these sports. Now, however, wrestling has returned and joined them, which is fantastic. We also expect to see the resurrection of gymnastics, and we’re not quite sure where our boxers stand. In these sports, we have always had knowledge, traditions and workshops, we have always had talent. We have one other traditional sport where I expected good results, but since Diána Igaly we’ve been unable to climb back. That’s shooting, and we disappear from there from time to time for as many as three to four Olympic periods. It’s also a mystery to me why we’re not among the best in archery, given the legendary link between Hungarians and archery. Meaning that Hungarian sports have a wide spectrum because they’re fundamentally based on workshops. Our world-famous athletes become coaches, and they run these workshops; traditions are handed down on an ongoing basis.

This broad spectrum is reflected in the fact that in Tokyo we won medals in nine disciplines, and scored Olympic points in as many as twelve. We were successful in new sports, or sports that were neglected in Hungary for a long time. Sailing, triathlon, cross-country cycling, karate…

Naturally, it’s important that we shouldn’t only catch up with relation to our traditional sports, although sailing is not a new successful discipline for us; I’m enough to still remember the Olympic medal of the Detre brothers, for example, but Zsombor Berecz has now surpassed even that. In my view, cycling, too, is a sport in which we have a future. Kata Blanka Vas is a fantastic woman who, aged nineteen, came fourth behind three Swiss cyclists; this is the best ever Hungarian result in the sport. This fourth place is especially valuable. Old glory is important, but we must also be open to new ones, because we evidently also have talent in those, and it transpires with relation to more and more sports that the Hungarians are good at them.

Many people frequently ask when athletes can be expected to be held accountable for results in the wake of the huge amounts of money invested in sports. Most recently, you told Nemzeti Sport that this should take place after the Olympics. Has the time come then?

Who does the development of sports occur in Hungary? The first level is physical education in school, amateur sports, daily physical activity. This includes that the country should be fully available for physical activity, that we should refurbish our hiking routes and lakes, we should build cycle paths, and should create sports facilities and swimming pools that are open to all in every district – not only for competitive sports, but for everyone. This is the first step that is necessary for physical activity, as Hungarians are generally reluctant to engage in physical activities. The Hungarian people work extremely hard, and so for many of them work is followed by rest, not by sports. In order to motivate them to engage in physical activity after working a higher number of hours than the European average, we must create appropriate conditions to ensure that they don’t have to struggle with the elements just because the hiking routes are not in a proper state or our lakes are not readily accessible, or because children are not taught the basics of physical exercise and sports remain alien to them. After we were deprived of our natural resources after World War I, in this country everything we have is the result of labour. For us it’s not enough to drill into the ground, we don’t have high mountains pouring out precious ores and wood, and so on. Over here, we must create everything out of hard work, this is why we have to work as much as we do. This is why we must help people to have easy access to sports facilities so that sports should be not only be a question of individual determination, but also a natural pastime for families. So that families can readily set out to go cycling, camping or hiking.

Not forgetting the important issue of accountability or assessment, please allow me to make one remark: you haven’t yet mentioned sport in schools and at universities, which is also an important part of amateur sports.

After we have completely modernised our university system, one of the conditions of providing grants for higher education will be the availability of physical education also at universities, and we will provide extra funding if they enter teams in certain conventional sports in university championships such as basketball, volleyball, rowing and pentathlon. As a result, we will bring universities back to the realms of both amateur and competitive sports.

In which the government has invested an enormous amount of money since it declared sport a strategic sector again in 2010.

That’s right, the second level of sports development in Hungary is the education of the athletes of the future. Here, young people may find the opportunity of advancement in professional sports, and so we are developing this area on the basis of long-term agreements concluded with sports associations. It’s the sports associations that state the targets they agree to accomplish. A phase is now coming to an end; earlier, we concluded an agreement for two Olympiads, which was extended by a year due to the pandemic and the postponement of the Olympic Games. The sports associations involved are now submitting their reports, the verification of which will begin shortly. A professional and financial verification, regarding which the government will receive a full report next January or February, will constitute the basis of the next long-term agreements to be concluded – according to our plans – for a period of 3+4+4 years as the next Olympiad will be held in three years’ time. We would like to conclude a sports development agreement with each association before the elections. Sports associations are good partners, but we’ll have to face the situation sincerely; eight or nine years have passed, they received a great many opportunities and lots of money, and now everyone must render a professional and financial account of how they utilised those opportunities. Reporting, rendering an account, to be followed by a new long-term agreement; this is what’s going to happen in every sport.

Do you think the traditional role and strength of sports will also survive in the coming decades?

We’re living in a world where respect for tradition, for established things has been compromised. This is reflected in the world of the Internet, in globalism that keeps trying to marginalise nations, and we also observe the signs of that process in sports. There is this whole LGBTQ madness, the issue of biological sexes, the unisex world, and so on. They call into question everything that has brought the world to where we are over a period of two thousand years. There is an ongoing temptation to create some brave new world that is radically different from the one in which we have lived to date. And this also reaches our children. Sport continues to remain the ideal of defending the old, tried and tested things that have been with us for many thousands of years.

If it is able to remain so.

This is what we hope for. At the end of the day, at the Olympics we must test ourselves against others, we must fight with honour, and someone will be crowned champion. Competing is good, not bad, there are male and female disciplines, success is also success for the community that the champion represents, it’s not just the individual’s victory, and national flags are hoisted; there is no such thing as a global flag.

But there are the International Olympic Committee flag and anthem instead of the Russian ones and for refugee athletes, and according to Belgian EU politician Guy Verhofstadt, beneath the national coat of arms, European athletes should also sport the EU’s coat of arms on their uniforms.

These are feeble attempts. Nations cannot be replaced. The Olympics and sports are also a great help in passing on to our children our tried and tested values.

Yet, last year even the Olympics were cancelled, something which only happened in the past one hundred years at the time of world wars. So has even one of the pillars of our culture that we thought was among the most stable been shaken?

Everyone agrees that humanity is facing calamitous times because we have pandemics and ever further waves of migration, we’re suffering the effects of climate change, and by virtue of the fact that even the leading and world-organising position of the West that won the Cold War has been called into question, a great many uncertainties have emerged in the world. Dangerous times are coming, we must keep our wits about us.

While the Olympics were eventually held, ample reminders of these dangers were the empty stands of the Tokyo facilities, in contrast, say, to the more than fifty thousand spectators of the Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix, or the full-house European Football Championship matches held in June in Budapest.

I do feel for the Japanese because it must be painful for a nation – after preparing for a decade to host the world’s most beautiful and most uplifting Olympiad ever – to eventually have to manage a crisis Olympiad. It’s also evident that if we had had the chance to host the Olympics, they would have been held similarly to the European Championship, in front of full houses, open, without problems. Because though in this discipline no medals are awarded, Hungary is surely in the top three in the management of the pandemic. As we have enough vaccines and are able to vaccinate everyone, it is also everyone’s personal responsibility to provide for their own safety. And the Hungarian people accepted that those who had been vaccinated should be allowed to return to normal life, and not be hindered in this by those who have not been inoculated. Therefore, we are able to make our sports events available to those who have been immunised, meaning to around two thirds of the population.

We have recently learnt, however, that we can’t hope for a Budapest Olympiad even for 2032 as Australia’s Brisbane will be the host then. Have we lost this chance for good?

An Olympiad can only be organised in national unity. Hungary had an historic opportunity when it could have obtained the right to host the Olympic Games, but we were unable to present the national unity that would have been necessary for that. Naturally, there are also political reasons for this because there were some who hoped to gain political capital by saying no, and by making a great many people say no to the Olympics. But the truth is that this opportunity came a little too soon, because the nation was not yet united in the conviction that Hungary is a country that is able to host an Olympiad not while encumbering itself economically, but while making a huge profit. Since then, four years have passed, and now there are far more Hungarians who appreciate that the hotel development and road development projects that are necessary for an Olympiad have been completed regardless of the Olympics. We had to embark on these development projects not because of the Olympics, but because our development demanded them irrespective of the Olympics, and so today we would be much better-prepared for an Olympiad. In 2017, we would have had a great chance to host the event; today we don’t have a chance to win, despite the fact that in 2021 we would be much better-prepared than we were in 2017. That ship has sailed – for the time being. But the hosting of the Olympics is an eternal dream for the Hungarians. A love that never ends. The necessary capabilities, a love for sports, the importance of sports, national sentiment, economic strength, culture, are all there, and will remain there. Therefore, although we may not live to see it, there will be an Olympiad in Hungary. We could well be prevented from hosting the Olympics for petty reasons, for cheap political capital, but this dream cannot be taken away from the Hungarian people. Every year we’re stronger, every year we’re better-prepared, every year the country looks better, every year it’s increasingly evident that Hungary is worthy of hosting an Olympiad.