Once Upon a Time in Hungary
Host of the first Senior World Championships leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Hungary and its judo share a rich and tormented history. Overview of a puzzle in perpetual (de)construction.
Twenty-six years after the Debrecen European Championships and four years after the event’s 2013 edition in the same Laszlo Papp Sportarena, Budapest hosted the 33rd Judo World Championships from August 28 to September 3, 2017. This year emblematised the local judokas’ quest for their nation’s 25th medal at this level, the first since -90kg Krisztián Tóth took home silver in Chelyabinsk in 2014. A challenge that should have been well within the grasp of this populous team, being one of only 6 national teams – along with Japan, France, Mongolia, Brazil and South Korea – to have supplied the maximum number of combatants allowed by the rules (nine men and nine women). The final result? Three 5th place finishes in the -81, -90 and +100 kg on the men’s side, and not even a Top 7 for the women. Finishing ranked 25th among the nations present despite the pedigree of certain athletes and the fervour with which the crowd greeted its own every time they entered the field of play – the crowning moment being the third morning’s back-to-back bouts by -57kg Hedvig Karakas and -73kg Mikos Ungvari. On paper, this was a near-failure for a country tallying 13300 judokas across 312 schools, according to the figures mentioned in the official competition brochure. In truth, the result is one that needs to be understood within the context of the event’s strength: 728 athletes from 126 countries, among them powerhouses Japan and Mongolia whose combined 36 combatants took home 18 of the 56 individual medals. As perspective, in 1981 and 2013, Hungary “only” walked away with three medals during “its” European Championships on home soil.
Entities The 2017 World Championships were also an opportunity to see how the Hungarian National Team was structured, or rather how each of the team’s separate entities were structured. Because if anything truly stood out over these seven days of competition, it was the functional autonomy of the white and purple tracksuit and turquoise and orange t-shirt wearing coach-athlete duos. “It goes back a few years” explained Szandra Szögedi, a Hungarian-born
-63 kg from London famous for having donned Ghana’s colours at the Rio Games and well-known on the internet for her comments during the European Judo Union’s streaming sessions. “Up until the Athens Games, the National Team trained at the Tata Centre, about an hour outside of Budapest.” At that point, the head coach was a German, Ferenc Németh. Under his leadership – and according to an interview given to a German colleague in May 2012 – the Hungarian team won “35 European and World medals”. A success regularly plagued by heated discussions with club coaches possessing strong personalities and the unshakeable conviction that their way was best. The result? No medals in Athens; once again failing to meet national expectations, the same story as in Atlanta or Sydney, or the World Championships in Chiba, Paris, Birmingham and Osaka… Afterwards, the Federation thought best to leave the reins of the National Team to some of Hungary’s club coaches. But old wounds go deep. So rather than leave the keys of a machine as sensitive as a national team in the hands of a single coach with a single vision, the Federation proposed the following deal to the clubs: “You want to be in charge? Go train your own athletes at home, and your only federal obligation is to train together with the rest of the national team once a week. Either you succeed and we continue this way, or you fail and we take back our team.” Twelve years, two Olympic medals, thirteen World medals and 39 European medals later (including an all-time record 7 during Vienna 2010), it’s hard to argue with the results. In any case, even if Hungary is not leading the pack of world judo nations, they remain a strong contender, despite its divisions.
Clubs. “For us, it allows us to individualise our preparation to the fullest, and to plan our trips according to our own needs” celebrates -48kg Éva Csernoviczki, currently the team’s most decorated athlete with 10 consecutive European medals (and counting), a Worlds medal from 2011 and a bronze in London – won without a coach, since her father Csaba was banished to the stands for the bout due to his vehement tongue. “Nevertheless, training together once a week is not enough to close the gap between the elite and the rest”, believes the thirty-year old from Tatabánya, 60 km west of Budapest, her clear gaze locked firmly towards the future. Her club is among the half-dozen that make up the backbone of Hungarian judo. The others? The Honved military club coached by Péter Toncs where athletes Bertalan Hajtós, Anett Breitenbach (née Mészáros), Hedvig Karakas, Dániel Hadfi, Kriszán Szabolcs and Gábor Vér rolled. There is also the KSI SE Judo Szakosztályának run by Gábor Pánczél that athletes such as Abigél Erdélyi-Joo et Krizstián Tóth called home. The third would be Sándor Illés’ Újpesti Toma Egilet (ÚTE), Budapest’s HQ, fast declining in the last few years, but where champions of a not-too-distant past can still be seen on the walls. Beyond the capital and out of Csernoviczki’s hood in Tatabánya, the Paks club run by mainstay László Hangyási, 120 km south of Budapest, let through its doors Barna Bor, Miklós Cirjenics and László Csoknyai, but particularly housed Antal Kovács, Ákos Braun and Anett Breitenbach a few years earlier, Olympic champion, World chapions and 4-time World Championship medallist, respectively. Finally, the Cegléd club, a hundred kilometers or so south-east of the capital, is the domain of the indomitable Ungvári brothers and their coach Tamás Biró.
Adjustments. If Hungarian judo requires a geography class, it also requires a history lesson (or two). In 1956, year of the first ever Judo World Championships, the USSR was forcibly suppressing a resistance movement in favour of Prime Minister Imre Nagy’s pining for independence. As a symbol, 61 years later MM. Putin and Orbán, Russian and Hungarian heads of state, made it a point of honour to sit side-by-side in the stands during the final bout of these first World Championships on Magyar soil. 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain tore through the state; if the chaos that ensued had its share of happy surprises –back-to-back World Championship titles in 1992 and 1993 by a 20 year-old -95kg judoka, Antal Kovács -, it also brought with it a number of unexpected adjustments. “We had to work in the mornings before training and in the afternoon run to our sponsors product placements to make up for our brutal budget cuts, since the government had other priorities,” remembers Péter Toncs, born in 1974 and a member of a generation whose best years were sacrificed at the altar of this delicate geopolitical transition. “Luckily, since 2011 the government has managed to provide more help to clubs for camps and training”, continued the man who became coach at 24 and whose student, Hedvig Karakas, confided in him her humble dream of being able to “set up a training camp in Japan”. And what can be said about the meteoric rise and fall of Zsusza Nagy? Exhumed from the continental archives in the spring of 2017 after 16-year-old Ukrainian judoka Daria Bilodid won Warsaw and left many wondering if she had become the youngest European Champion in history, Nagy’s name appeared in Judo Inside’s data as holding that honour, having won the same title at 15 in 1991. Her career was as ephemeral as it was bewildering; a few months after winning her crown she definitively turned her back on the sport. “Those were hard years”, remembers the woman who only stepped back into judo as a member of the organising committees for the 2013 European Championship and 2017 World Championships. “One year before my European title, the last Hungarian European champion, László Tolnai, had received an apartment as a prize. My title in Prague barely gave me enough to by a bicycle”. Finishing 7th two months later at the Barcelona World Championships – beaten by the previous year’s champion and future Olympic champion Cathy Fleury-, the youngest athlete of the Barcelona Olympic team, being 16 and brimming with potential, suffered due to budget constraints preventing her coach from accompanying her to such an important event, not to mention being unable to prepare adequately. Eliminated early in Catalonia, she bounced back a little in October taking third at the World Juniors in Buenos Aires, but, forced to compromise when it came to her stipends during an end-of-season camp, she lost all interest and quit, at 17, right after a final trip to Sardinia. Still in high school, she preferred investing her energy into the creation of the Gilda Max fitness network and, with the birth of her daughter Bogi and a Masters of Science to her name, took up the mantle of the Tengerszem tennis club. Her judo medals? “If I had to sell them one day, it wouldn’t be an issue for me.”
Unity. While this central European country’s landlocked status (sharing borders with no less than seven countries!) and its difficult post-1989 transition years may have triggered the very human reflex of closing in on itself, these factors also contributed to creating its excellence pathways, academic and beyond, that go well beyond the realm of sports. An example among many? The professional reconversion of Hungarian judo’s first and only World Champion to date, the -95kg Antal Kovács – also one of the rare few -100kg on the planet to have beaten Kosei Inoue by ippon during the latter’s near-invincible reign from 1999 to 2003. Doctorate of Economics, he has held various positions of importance at the Paks nuclear plant, within the National Olympic Committee and the national judo federation. Another symbol of the country’s open attitude: the international judo federation opened in its Dunavarsány training centre on Hungarian soil in early 2016. Destined first and foremost to train combatants without the necessary resources or staff in their home countries to compete at the highest level, the fully-furnished centre is led by Florian Velici, experienced coach of the erstwhile Romanian become German Daniel Lascau (1991 -78kg World Champion) and the German Michael Jurack (3rd -100kg at 2004 OG). Participating nations pay for international competition registration and transport, whilst food, training and lodging are all covered by the IJF. “It’s an extremely hard-working atmosphere since we are 40 minutes from Budapest and train two to three times a day starting at 6:30 am, including one or two sessions a week with the Hungarian team,” explains Szandra Szögedi, a staple of the centre during the last stretch of the Olympic qualification who saw athletes from North Korea, Moldavia or Bulgaria staying for days, sometimes longer. Christianne Legentil, the first athlete to step foot in the Centre in early 2016 – Florian Velici was her national coach in Mauritius at the time -, secured her spot at the Rio Games thanks to her efforts here. The -52kg had just returned from knee surgery and, to almost everyone’s surprise, had beaten THE Kosovare Kelmendi in London 2012 while still junior. “The IJF has provided us with an amazing opportunity. It’s hard to be away from family and friends, but at the end of the day it’s worth it,” underlines the athlete who would finish seventh at the Rio Games. The Venezuelan Elvismar Rodríguez, -70kg world number 1 in spring of 2017, Puerto Rico’s María Pérez, World silver medallist in the category September 1st in Budapest, or the Palestinian Simon Yakoub, who held his own against -66kg Olympic champion Fabio Basile during the first round, are among the athletes who have traded their national isolation into opportunity thanks to this centre. “There are around 40 Dunavarsány resident athletes,” mentions Nicolas Messner, IJF Director of Media. “Just before the World Championships, 160 athletes came to train, forcing us to find rooms outside the centre.” Despite no clear and visible national unity, Hungarian judo brings together other nations on its soil. Only one of its many paradoxes. Anthony Diao