Orban's Olympic Momentum Crash A Wizz Air aircraft carrying Budapest 2024 design elements inaugurated at the Ferenc Liszt International Airport. Photo: Bud.hu

Orban’s Olympic Momentum Crash

Momentum, a youth-based grassroots movement, unexpectedly blew Hungary’s increasingly totalitarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, away from his own Olympic dream. And the movement, which had started out voicing corruption and environmental concerns regarding the Olympic bid, has now burst onto Hungary’s political scene to demand other much needed change and democratic dialogue as well.

The NOlimpia Movement collecting signatures for the referendum at the Hungarian Parliament Building. Photo: NOlimpia Activists

Facing intense public opposition, Hungary’s government withdrew Budapest’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games, leaving just Los Angeles and Paris in the race. Budapest became the fourth city to cancel its proposal for the 2024 Summer Games after Boston, Hamburg, and Rome. Rome’s mayor deemed the cost too high; the US Olympic committee dropped Boston’s proposal because of public scepticism over costs; and Hamburg’s bid was cancelled in line with a local referendum. The Hungarian government cited “the lack of political and national unity behind the application” as the main reason for dropping its bid, as communicated on the 22nd of February 2017 in Magyar Kozlony, the official journal of the Republic of Hungary.

One of the founding countries of modern-day Olympics, Hungary ranked 12th in the number of medals received at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games. Orban then emphasised that Hungary was the only country amongst the 10 most successful nations in Olympic history that had not yet hosted the Games, and thus it was the right time for it to take its turn in the Olympic spotlight. Orban’s centre-right government threw its full support behind Hungary’s aspirations, and the country’s former president Pal Schmitt was appointed President of the Budapest 2024 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games Bid Committee. Videos and photos of sports celebrities swamped mass media channels as well as streets throughout the capital of Budapest, and the country’s major airline, Wizz Air, even painted one of its planes in the Olympic colours.

But despite the robust and well-intended campaign, the proposal never found any over-joyous audience, and, in fact, gained the ire of intellectuals, who saw the event as just another gem to place on the dictatorial leader’s crown in order to manipulate the crowds. According to the official feasibility study of the Budapest 2024 Summer Games by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Olympics would have cost HUF 774bn (EUR 2.5bn), while the revenue would have resulted in HUF 1,100bn (EUR 3.5bn). However,  Index.hu wrote that these estimates were unrealistically low and indicated that the money spent on the application process alone had been at least three times more than that estimated in the feasibility study.

Economic lessons (not) learned

A 2012 study by the University of Oxford examined 17 Winter and Summer Olympic Games and summarised that the final costs of each event greatly exceeded planned budgeting by an average of 179 percent. Using this average, Hungary’s final spending could have been HUF 1385bn (EUR 4.5bn), which is still a conservative figure when compared to previous Games where the final cost exceeded the original estimates by three (Sochi 2014) to even seven times (Montreal 1976).

To justify the enormous spending, proponents of hosting often argued that these infrastructure projects would have provided continuing benefits long after the Games had ended. However, U.S. economist Andrew S. Zimbalist warned against relying on such claims in his book, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, published in 2015. His writing offers a tour of Athens, Beijing, and Rio de Janeiro to take a look at the giant “white elephants” standing abandoned in these host cities following the Olympics or World Cup: a volleyball stadium inhabited by squatters, weed-infested cycling racetracks, and underused football pitches.

Hosting the games is not unlike building a church for one single, glorious wedding celebration!

“Hosting the games is not unlike building a church for one single, glorious wedding celebration”, wrote Tim Harford, an economist for the Financial Times. The most expensive Olympic Games ever held was in Sochi, where the main culprits for overspending were extensive new constructions, the non-ideal location and, incidentally, the high corruption rate. The abuse and imprisonment of environmental and human rights activists prior to the Games also cast a shadow over Russia’s hosting of the event.

Today the Olympic village of Sochi stands like a ghost town, and over in Athens, a similar situation of reckless spending can also be seen. Greece paid around nine percent of its annual GDP for the construction and organising costs of the Athens Games, and this excess “epitomized the structural problems that bedeviled the country for decades”, wrote Bloomberg. As Zimbalist proposed in his book, a fair hearing should be given to bids that rely on existing facilities, and full transparency and accountability should be considered priorities in the upcoming events of the International Olympic Committee and FIFA.

Concerns regarding budget overruns are not unfounded, as shown clearly in the case of the FINA World Championship, organised by Hungary for July 2017. Instead of the originally planned HUF 25bn (EUR 0.1bn), expenses had quadrupled with six months still to go before the aquatic event. These costs could easily crawl up even more as often happens with such huge sporting events, where there is no way to push out the deadline. It is because of this that the Olympics are considered the most expensive and most financially risky undertaking, as underlined by the Oxford study in 2012.

Olympics – the most expensive and riskiest financial investment

Environmentalists raised concerns about the impact of Olympic construction on the hills of Hármashatár-hegy, an environmentally protected area. Photo: Gabriella Zsebeházi

Political opponents, concerned civil society groups, and environmentalists raised several issues that questioned the soundness of the Hungarian government’s decision to bid for the Olympics as well. The cost of hosting the Summer Games in Hungary was estimated as high as it was in Greece, about 9% of the country’s GDP, not taking into account any potential overspending. An overpriced stunt like the FINA World Championship would increase the government’s actual spending to 36% of Hungary’s GDP, warned the blog Meanwhile in Budapest. For the sake of comparison, hosting the Games would take less than 0.5 % of the annual GDP in the United States.

Environmental concerns also plagued the launched proposal for hosting the Olympics. Benedek R. Sallai, member of opposition green party LMP and head of the Parliament’s sustainable development committee, pointed out that the environmental impact and the cost of eliminating the temporary infrastructure after the event had not been considered. This could have added HUF 1,000bn (EUR 3.2bn) to the final tab of hosting the Games, Sallai suggested. Local residents also expressed their disagreement over the planned location for mountain bike races that would have threatened the Hármashatár-hegy, an environmentally protected site in the Mountains of Buda that is part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network. By the end of 2016, due to pressure from the International Cycling Union, the proposed location had been changed.

The people’s Momentum

The NOlimpia core group is under 30, but there are older supporters as well. Photo: NOlimpia Activists

After Budapest’s Olympics campaign was launched in 2015, opposition groups called for a referendum to hear the people’s opinion, but it was deemed inadmissible by electoral authorities. The government’s refusal to consult the public for its views in the winter of 2016 sparked a non-party political movement calling for a vote on the idea.

The young civil group, Momentum, argued that Hungary was not yet economically prepared to host the Olympics, and that the money should be spent on healthcare, education, and infrastructure, areas that have been in need of funding for decades. This gave rise to NOlimpia, a movement that demanded a city-wide referendum on the bid. Reuters reported that Momentum’s campaign was backed by 1,800 volunteers and that it had raised around HUF 17.5 million (EUR 56,000) through crowdfunding on the Internet. After 30 days, the group presented a petition with over 266,000 signatures, nearly twice the number legally required to ask city authorities for a ballot.

Politics in young hands

András Fekete-Győr, Momentum’s leader, was born in 1989, the year Hungary embraced democracy. He was just three months old when a young Viktor Orban delivered his landmark speech calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from his motherland. Fekete-Győr holds a law degree from the same university as Orban, studied in Germany, and worked in Paris. In March 2017, he was elected chairman of a newly-born political party, the Momentum Movement. He believes that Hungary is still in the hands of leaders with authoritarian instincts and that the 1989 “system-changing” revolution was never quite finished. In one interview, Fekete-Győr named the disclosure of files for Communist-era secret service agents “a prerequisite for the completion of the transition and the new start” and pointed to this as a primary task for his movement and his generation.

“No to the Olympics, yes to our future.” Young volunteers of the NOlimpia Movement collecting signatures for the referendum in the underground of Budapest. Photo: NOlimpia

The Momentum triggered hostile comments from the very beginning. “Those who sign the petition are all traitors”, said András Bencsik, Chief Editor of the journal Demokrata, on EchoTV. At the same time, character assassination commenced when the group was accused of being paid by George Soros, the Hungarian-American business magnate, advocate of open societies, and well-known supporter of American progressive and liberal political causes.

Given his narrow defeat in obtaining public support for his anti-EU stance on immigrant issues at a previous referendum in September 2016, Viktor Orban took no risks this time.  His government backtracked on the Olympic bid before the official results of the petition for a referendum were announced. “In recent months, the earlier unity has broken down and the issue of the Olympics has turned from a national issue into a party issue,” the government commented in a resolution published by the national news agency MTI. “They should not step back from a referendum, but have the courage to ask the people”, Fekete-Győr responded. He explained that the withdrawal from a referendum shows that Orban’s centre-right party of Fidesz is no longer willing to enter into any sort of democratic debate.

Since Orban rose to power in 2010 and began centralising control in the hands of Fidesz, this would have been the first time that the governing party with its two-thirds majority in Parliament would have been forced to defend its viewpoint. Momentum spokesperson, Gergo Papp, told Index.hu that the government had taken away a chance for the people to vote on the project and had acted “in a cowardly manner”, thus also betraying its supporters. As an opinion poll by Median showed, the idea of the Budapest Olympics was supported by only a third of Hungarians, suggesting that it was much more a dream of government insiders than the will of a united nation.

Targeting an event of symbolic importance for the Prime Minister was a powerful first step in challenging Orban’s government, which has become known for non-transparent and illiberal politics. One year before the 2018 elections, Momentum’s main challenge will be to keep up the publicity it gained from the referendum campaign and to set up a political program that appeals to those in the countryside outside of Budapest as well. “First, we need to break down brick by brick the wall of indifference”, stated Fekete-Győr in his commemorative speech on the 15th of March, the Hungarian National Holiday in memory of the 1848–49 Revolution and War of Independence. The defeat of the Olympics bid was a start, but there is clearly much work to be done. 

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