International success puts athletics back under the spotlight in Hungary

Anita Marton in Belgrade
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Hungary's Anita Marton's profile has expanded domestically after another excellent season in major events

Athletics might be thriving in Hungary but one of the men at the helm of the federation did not realise just how good it had become last summer because he was on his phone at the time. 

But do not think for one minute that Marton Gyulai was making a call as Balazs Baji won bronze in the 110m hurdles at the IAAF World Championships in London. 

“I am very emotional when it comes to our athletes performing at their best, let it be world championships or even at national level,” said Gyulai, the General Secretary of the Hungarian Athletics Federation.

“Most of my friends and colleagues on the international scene already know that about me. I cannot hold back feelings in such situations and often tears come to my eyes in the midst of celebrations.

“When Anita [Marton] launched her last attempt in the shot put in that freezing rain we were screaming with joy [she won silver] and thanking her for being as consistent and strong in her head as she has been for close to four years already. 

“With Balazs it was like a dream. I was recording all his runs then sending them to him on his cell phone throughout the competition so he can analyse it with his coach Istvan Tomhauser immediately. Because I was concentrating on the recording I did not believe when everybody told me that he had the bronze.

“When I saw his name come up on the screen I was crying like a kid I was so happy. It is something I will never forget.” 

Glory on the big stage can only do wonders for spreading the word in this social media day and age when youngsters can be drawn to such a wealth of other activities. They may have known more about Olympic bronze medallist and two-time European indoor gold medallist Marton in the past but now they know Baji very well too.

“It was a fantastic 2017 for Hungarian athletes with the two medallists in London. How famous are they now at home? I do not remember the last time that there was an athlete in the top three for both the men’s and women’s Sports Personality of the Year in Hungary; it must have been at least three decades ago but possibly more and Balazs winning, it is a dream come true,” he said. 

Baji was indeed crowned male Sports Personality of the Year after claiming Hungary’s first ever medal on the track in IAAF World Championships in London while Marton finished third in the women’s voting which was dominated again by swimmer Katinka Hosszu. Their prominence in the voting was a boon for their own profiles, as well as for the profile of the sport in Hungary.  

“They are all over the papers, social media and personal sponsors have begun to show up for them which is the best sign of people believing in them.” 

Their success has come at a perfect time for the Hungarian Athletics Federation because in the summer, the northwest city of Gyor is hosting the second edition of the European Athletics U18 Championships.

“We strongly believe in bringing events to Hungary. We are very proud to host the championships this summer. We are the first Member Federation of European Athletics to have hosted all major European Championships: outdoor, indoor, cross country, U23, U20 and U18. That’s quite a tally,” he said.

And with such events comes the continual working of the federation with clubs and schools to maintain the progress of homegrown youngsters.

“Clubs have their own programmes and the federation respects that,” said Gyulai. “When there is a federation promotion programme running, the clubs willingly participate in that as we are a small country and have realised that the best way forward is together.” 

At the same time, Marton and Baji can only be further inspiration for the stars of the future because of their backgrounds. “Anita and Balazs are really ‘people like us’ as you would say," said Gyulai. "They were raised in Hungary, they continue to live here, train here for most of the year, work here and go to school here.

“They are the best example of how any young talent in Hungary can become successful and a role model to others."