Somewhat unexpectedly, Gergely Karácsony emerged as mayor of Budapest with a clear majority in the assembly, and stadium constructions are in danger, including the one that would host the 19th IAAF World Championships in Athletics in 2023 which Hungary is to organize. As a result, speculations and lobbying have begun although all the parties remain visibly low-key (for now).
In one of his loudest campaign messages, Karácsony promised to halt “STEALthy Olympics” and stop the construction of stadiums. This obviously refers to the aforementioned athletics center and the new, huge, indoor handball stadium for the 2022 EHF European Men’s Handball Championship that Hungary co-hosts with Slovakia. Almost all of Budapest’s significant, and even less significant football clubs have already gotten one each, while the building of Budapest Honvéd’s football stadium probably cannot be stopped anymore (and Kispest’s re-elected opposition (Socialists [MSZP]) mayor Péter Gajda also took a clear stance by its construction).
But while Hungary’s infrastructures are suitable to host the handball matches elsewhere, if this new athletics center is not constructed, Hungary will certainly have to give up as event organizer. This decision would save some public funds but the withdrawal could be costly, both in terms of prestige as well as financially, as those who have already signed contracts would want to receive compensation.
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Athletes take a stance
Shortly after the elections, sports dignitaries and athletes took action and began campaigning for hosting privileges. Hurdles’s WC bronze medalist Balázs Baji was the first to write in an emotional Facebook post that
It is important for everyone to know before making the final decision what a domestically-hosted world event means to us, and that athletics -the fifth most successful sport in Hungary- doesn’t have a real home, training center, or event facility suitable for international events.”
Later, world-class swimmer Katinka Hosszú and WC gold medalist shot-putter Anita Márton joined in, along with a number of other sportsmen. In addition, the Hungarian Athletics Association (MASZ) also took a firm stance and in a post on Facebook wrote:
No one has yet said that Budapest would renounce the organization of the event. And we want everybody to stop even thinking about this! Our goal is for everyone to see that there are many of us who love athletics and want to see the 2023 World Championships held in Budapest!”
Do Budapesters really want it? And need it?
After that Momentum managed to collect more than 266,000 signatures to force a referendum on the planned Budapest’s Olympics (causing the government and the Budapest assembly to withdraw the bid) and the left-liberal opposition’s triumph in Budapest, it seems rightful to ask whether Budapest people really want this, and if they would indeed benefit from it. The athletics center’s construction cost alone has been estimated to 120 billion HUF (Eur 381 million). Given, however, the experience of hosting the FINA World Championships in 2017, where costs sky-rocketed, this number would presumably greatly increase. And although after the event, the seat allocation of this new athletics stadium would be reduced to around 15,000, it’s still doubtful how it would be utilized after the events, as well as maintenance costs.
FINA World Championships Costs Might Be Even Higher
In reaction to the athletes’ campaign, sports economist Ferenc Dénes wrote that while he was fond of athletics and supported the Budapest games, the athletes’ call is “a bit false and not fair at all.” He writes that they should add to their appeal that everyone who liked it should be willingly ready to give 10,000 forints (Eur 32) per month from now on for the organization. He explained that
As what we know or rather what we can suppose, 98% of the WC’s infrastructure and organization will be paid by taxpayers, the overwhelming majority of whom will have little to no share from the benefits; rather, they will be affected by the costs and disadvantages of the event.”
The district’s (Ferencváros) new opposition mayor Krisztina Baranyi’s words don’t predict any good news either. At a conference on Wednesday, she said that she would hinder the construction of the athletic stadium “by all means” because “it is not at all needed, while Ferencváros would lose one of its most valuable sites and its maintenance would cost hundreds of millions, even billions.”
Karácsony in delicate situation
The new Budapest mayor could easily find himself in a delicate situation. While before the elections he was rather loud to claim that he is only okay with the student city planned close to there, but not with the sports stadiums (a rowing and kayak-canoe center has also been planned in Csepel), recently he has been visibly careful with any such statements while facing pressure from the central government.
In an interview with Mandiner.hu, Gergely Gulyás repeated the stance of a number of government officials echoed after the municipal elections. The PMO Chief said he wants “a clear position” and that the government has given a deadline until the 15th of November for the new Budapest assembly to decide.
State Secretary for Sports, Tünde Szabó, claimed that withdrawal of the organization would be a major blow for the ‘rebuilt’ Hungarian sports diplomacy, and for the domestic practitioners of athletics as a whole. According to her, similar to the FINA World Championships of Aquatics, the WC would be beneficial for the whole country.
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The new Budapest mayor could support it, but only if…
On Thursday, Karácsony told TV channel RTL Klub, that he could change his mind on the athletics stadium but with certain conditions: “My view is that there is no need for this stadium, but I am pleased that the issue has evolved into a public dialogue.” He added that
I’m open to change my position on this issue as well if the developments that are particularly important to Budapest, and that which has been part of my program will be added to the list of the feasible ones.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s supreme court (Kúria) has given the green light to a referendum initiative of former LMP politician Dániel Kassai about “a new sports stadium built on the northern tip of Csepel island” that equals the athletics center. Although the referendum is to ask residents if the stadium construction should be banned until January 1, 2023, if it goes through, it obviously means withdrawal from the WC and even Karácsony himself is not in favor of this idea. However, the new Budapest mayor said they would ask the Budapester’s opinions about the stadium before making the final decision but it is yet unclear how they will do it, if not by referendum.
Featured photo illustration by Napur Architect