BUDAPEST – A country spends millions, sometimes billions, to deliver a major international sports event to the world. That money buys a chance to project strength at home and abroad and, if the event goes well, maybe even glosses over that country's oft-dissected shortcomings.
It's a pattern that has played out in China, Russia, Qatar and other countries in the recent past. This month in Budapest, the spotlight will shine on Hungary, a country led by a prime minister with authoritarian leanings and a shaky human-rights record. Budapest's latest step onto the international stage starts Saturday, the opening of the nine-day track and field world championships.
At a cost of nearly $700 million, the sparkling National Athletics Center, on the left bank of the Danube River, will host more than 2,000 athletes from over 200 countries in the biggest international sports event this side of the Olympics.
Some see this as a natural move by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to establish the country's image on the world stage, much as other leaders have done in recent years by hosting World Cups, Olympics and other major championships in various sports.
Others see the right-wing government’s focus on hosting expensive sports events in a country of 9.7 million people as a destructive sign of corruption and overreach — a distraction from its own clouded track record on everything from human rights to democracy to a European Union-leading inflation rate of 17.6% on the year as of July.
Janos Kele, a former sports journalist and current board member with the opposition Momentum party, says Orbán and his Fidesz party place great emphasis on sports as a means to convey strength and competence to Hungarian voters, and — similarly to other autocratic systems — to boost their image internationally.
“In the midst of the economic and political difficulties that we are experiencing right now, such propagandistic elements can obviously distort reality somewhat and provide a sense of success,” he said. “These political systems want to buy themselves societal and international legitimacy.”
Orbán has become a right-wing power in a land that had, following the democratic transition in 1990, been pursuing its place among western liberal democracies. In recent years, the EU has launched numerous legal procedures against the government for its policies on asylum seekers and LGBTQ+ rights, and for failing to uphold rule-of-law standards.
A self-described champion of family values and Christian culture, Orbán has imposed strict rules on the depiction of homosexuality to minors under 18, banning LGBTQ+ content from school education programs, and in media, including television, films, advertisements and literature. The government has recently imposed hefty fines on booksellers that failed to place literature depicting homosexuality inside closed packaging as required by a 2021 “child protection” law.
Nikki Hiltz, a 1,500-meter runner who identifies as transgender and nonbinary and will be competing in the championships in Budapest, said human-rights standards should be raised when assessing which countries are eligible to host international sporting events.
“There are queer athletes in all sports. I think it’s just a bummer that they keep winning these bids,” Hiltz said. “I wish it was kind of like, ‘Hey, in order to host a championship, you have to pass this, this and this diversity and inclusion test,’ or whatever it is. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.”
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said that while some countries with weak human rights and democracy credentials use sports to improve their image, hosting such events holds benefits for the population.
“Do countries use sports? Of course they do. Every country wants to showcase itself through sport,” Coe said. “The one thing I can tell you is that I’ve never been involved in a sport that’s gone anywhere, particularly into challenging environments, where it has left that society politically, culturally, socially worse off.”
Swimming — another anchor of the Olympic program — is also among the sports that has doubled down on Hungary.
After hosting world championships in 2017 and 2022 in a purpose-built aquatics arena on the Danube costing more than $165 million, World Aquatics announced that it plans to move its headquarters to Budapest. The city will host the event again in 2027.
For soccer, the government-financed Puskas Arena, then the costliest stadium ever built in Hungary, opened in Budapest in 2019 at a price tag of around $600 million. It hosted four soccer matches during the European Championship in 2021.
Orbán is well-known as a soccer fanatic, and a former player himself. He has often used the sport as his preferred venue for pushing his political vision and amplifying his image as a man of the people. The government also directly funds the sport, paying for several of the 32 stadiums that have been built or renovated in Hungary since Orbán assumed power in 2010.
The biggest prize in international sports hosting is, of course, the Olympics. Hungary was briefly in the running to stage the 2024 Games, but withdrew in 2017 in the face of public opposition. Yet a government state secretary recently told sports website Inside the Games that Budapest was “even more capable” of hosting the Olympics now than in 2017, and that the Hungarian Olympic Committee could bid to host in 2036.
According to Kele, the recent focus on outfitting Budapest with numerous high-profile sports developments is part of a government plan to prepare the city to host the Olympics after the “painful failure” of withdrawing its 2024 bid.
“(The stadiums) planned to be built for the Olympics are what have been completed since then," Kele said. “What is really happening is that Fidesz is realizing its Olympic dream, only not in the form of an Olympic bid, but in parts, piece by piece.”
AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray contributed.
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