LANE ONE: Is Budapest’s Mayor Karacsony really going to hand back the 2023 World Championships to World Athletics?

The Hungarian Capital of Budapest, on the Danube River (Photo: Maurice via Wikipedia)

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An almost unbelievable set of stories rocketed out of the Hungarian capital of Budapest late last week, with Mayor Gergely Karacsony announcing last Thursday that he will propose the city withdraw as the host of the World Athletics Championships in 2023.

Budapest was awarded the event by World Athletics in 2018 and the Hungarian government approved HUF 204 billion (~ $690 million U.S.) to construct a 40,000-seat stadium – on wasteland adjacent to the Danube River – that will become a national training and competition site with a reduced, permanent capacity of about 15,000. The construction effort is underway.

The World Championships is budgeted at €81.8 million (~$96.5 million), but with the event expected to make money with income from an expected 166,000 visitors and an estimated 416,000 ticket sales.

But now Karacsony, a leader of the Hungarian Green Party (LMP), declared that he will propose to the Budapest General Assembly – the city council – next Wednesday (1st) that the city withdraw its approval to host the 2023 event.

It’s all about politics, of course.

The threatened walkaway has nothing to do with the World Championships as an event. Instead, this is an election-year reaction to a vote in the Hungarian National Assembly to turn a proposed “Student City” with housing and support services for about 8,000 university students into the site for the first foreign campus of China’s famed Fudan University. Per the Wikipedia entry on Fudan University:

“The Hungarian government made an agreement to open the first campus of Fudan University outside China in Budapest in 2024. The expansion would cost 540 billion HUF, of which 450 billion would be paid by the Hungarian state from a Chinese loan. The construction would be mainly done by Chinese companies. The investment was criticised by education professionals and politicians, citing concerns about economy, higher education and national security.”

Said Karacsony in proposing the World Championships abandonment, “It is time that this infamy is not left without a response.”

But the intrigue goes deeper. The Fidesz party currently controls the Hungarian National Assembly (parliament) with 117 of 199 seats, led by four-term Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Budapest flipped to opposition rule in local elections in 2019. The first-ever “opposition primary” is scheduled to be held in two stages, from 18-26 September and then 4-10 October, with the goal of aggregating anti-Fidesz feeling in the country behind a single candidate. National elections are due in 2022.

Karacsony, as a leader of the Greens (LDP), is one of the leading national opposition candidates, with polling showing him in a tight battle with Klara Dobrev (Liberalisok party: liberal) and Peter Jakab (Jobbik party: nationalist), among others.

One long-time observer of Hungarian politics explained that if the opposing parties are able to coalesce around a single candidate, the race against Fidesz could be a close one. But as for the World Championships, it’s probably “more noise than substance.”

But the political chatter plays on.

The Prime Minister’s Office released a statement about the Worlds withdrawal threat that “The statement of Gergely Karacsony is baseless, the mayor is clearly trying to divert attention from the traffic jams and chaos in the capital.”

The Hungarian federation for athletics (MASZ) said in a statement that “We are confident that as a signatory to the contract, the MASZ can continue to work toward making the World Championships the most prestigious event in the history of the tournament and an unforgettable event for Hungarian athletics, the fans, and the country.” The financial backing for the Championships came from the Hungarian national government.

Hungary Today also reported that some of the opposition parties are not in agreement with the Worlds withdrawal tactic, and that it wasn’t Karacsony’s idea, but a Democratic Coalition concept (allied with Klara Dobrev) that was adopted by the Budapest Mayor.

However, the Fudan University vs. “Student City” issue is not going to go away. In June, the Fidesz-controlled National Assembly voted to allocate the land designated for the Student City to the newly-established “Fudan University Hungary Foundation” for free. Balazs Furjes, the State Minister for Budapest, has said that a referendum will be held on whether the Fudan University project will go forward.

But this is not a welcome development for World Athletics.

Budapest appeared to be the perfect organizer for the Worlds, having hosted the World Indoor Championships in 1989 and 2004, the European Championships in 1966 and 1998 and has been a welcome site for world championships, with the FINA World Championships in 2017, wrestling in 2018, fencing and table tennis in 2019 and judo in 2017 and 2021.

Now this.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe (GBR) and Chief Executive Jon Ridgeon (GBR) both visited June’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, and while publicly confident about the 2022 Worlds to be held there, the whispers were of concern.

Besides the current Covid spread and worries about how the new Hayward Field will be expanded from the 12,650 permanent seats to about 28,000 for the Worlds, the $80.9 million Oregon22 budget expects about $40 million in support from the State of Oregon. Some $20 million has been allocated from Travel Oregon, but the other $20 million has been proposed to be funded by a permanent increase in the state’s transient occupancy tax from 1.5 to 1.8%. Oregon House Bill 4047 was passed, 37-18, on 21 February 2020, but has sat since then in the Oregon Senate, with no committee assignment and no actions planned. The 2022 Worlds are 10 1/2 months away, scheduled for 15-24 July.

Nothing is easy. The next episode comes Wednesday in the Budapest General Assembly.

Rich Perelman

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