Another River to Cross
When the Berlin Wall fell, Hungary was one of the leading canoeing nations. It had much more important things to think about but it was a pleasing achievement nevertheless.
It could not stand still however. As discussed last week, Romania has failed to maintain its Cold War level of investment. Sport has become a capitalist enterprise and Hungary has to keep its oars moving to stay with competitors who are spending more and more.
The key has been the Olympic Centre in Szeged. Opened in 1981 during the communist era, it had been maintained as a world class canoeing venue and training centre. In 2019, it will host the World Championships for the fourth time in a little over twenty years.
Szeged has allowed Hungary to develop a whole new generation of talent, such as Attila Vadja (above), gold medallist in the C1 1,000m at the 2008 Olympic Games. Vadja was even born in Szeged and might well be the first of many medallists with that birthplace.
Another of Hungary’s rivals, the Soviet Union, has not so much fallen behind as fallen apart. Its many rivers were widely distributed across its constituent nations and no less than six of them have won Olympic medals in canoeing since separating. But no one of them has dominated, leaving Germany as the only remaining force apart from Hungary.
Obsessive fans are also a major factor. Hundreds of enthusiastic Hungarians converged on Eton Dorney to watch canoeing at London 2012 (above). They have voted a canoeist as their top sportsman or woman 13 times, more than any other sport except swimming.
This passion for canoeing makes funding the sport a more attractive proposition for the government and for sponsors. This is turn makes victories easier to achieve, attracting an ever increasing number of fans, in a virtuous circle. Medallists often become coaches after retirement, and then help to produce yet more medallists. Success breeds success.
Consider Katalin Rozsnyoi. She won an Olympic silver medal in 1968 and then went on to coach many of the country’s top stars. She has been voted coach of the year six times.
Once an upward spiral of this nature has begun, the reason why the sport became so big in the first place becomes less and less important. The Danube starts to lose its lustre.
The final irony is this. Szeged lies on one of the largest rivers in Hungary, the Tisza. It is not on the Danube. Progress has been maintained by moving on when the time is right.
Next week: The surprising links between canoeing and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution