— Published 1 September 2021

Politics threatens Budapest’s World Athletics Championships

Budapest

Will the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest have to change its host city? With less than two years to go before the event, the scenario is not excluded. Gergely Karácsony, the mayor of the Hungarian capital, threatened to veto the organisation of the event earlier this week. His proposal is due to be discussed at a city council meeting on Wednesday, September 1st.

The issue is a very political one. The mayor of Budapest makes no secret of it: his threat is nothing more than a retaliation to the Hungarian government’s decision to build a campus of the Chinese university of Fudan in the capital. The problem is that the land planned for this imposing site had been reserved by Gergely Karácsony and his municipal team to build a university residence for nearly 8,000 students.

Important note: Gergely Karácsony, one of the leaders of the Green Party in Hungary, is well placed among Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s opponents. He even tops the list of possible candidates for the next national elections, scheduled for 2022. His campaign has obviously already begun. The dispute over the university project would only be a pretext, according to the Hungarian press, for a power struggle with Viktor Orban’s government.

Meanwhile, the threat is real. Without the approval of the municipality, Hungary will not be able to host the outdoor World Championships in 2023, awarded by World Athletics in 2018. The global event is set to be the most important sporting event ever organised by Hungary. It will be the climax for a country and a city that have multiplied major events in recent years and are still considering a new bid for the Summer Games, probably for the 2036 edition. The last Hungarian attempt, Budapest 2024, was derailed by an opposition campaign from a small political group. Facing the prospect of a referendum, the leaders of the project chose to give up.

In Hungary, the position taken by the mayor of Budapest caused an uproar among the sports community, which seems logical. The Hungarian Athletics Federation (MASZ) reacted in a press release, denouncing the incursion of a political dispute into the preparation of a sporting event. Several athletes also reacted, including shot putter Anita Márton, bronze medallist at the Rio 2016 Games.

“Sport and politics should not be mixed,” she told sports daily Nemzeti Sport. “Hosting the world championships is a great opportunity for Hungary, for Hungarian athletics, for people who love sport. I would be really saddened if this did not happen.”

Viktor Orban’s government also issued a short statement: “Gergely Karácsony’s statement is groundless, the mayor is clearly trying to divert the public’s attention from the traffic jams and chaos that are disrupting the capital.”

War is declared. Such a dispute would probably be settled by a compromise if it happened anywhere else, and the World Athletics Championships would not be threatened. But the precedent of Budapest’s bid for the 2024 Games, which was withdrawn from the race even though it had won over part of the Olympic movement and brought some fresh air to the campaign, suggests the worst is yet to come.