Tour of Italy in Hungary: shine through sport, Viktor Orban's strategy

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Freshly re-elected for a fourth term, the Hungarian Prime Minister will proudly see the Giro set off from Budapest on Friday, May 6, one of the major cycling events of the season. An ally of Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban took his example from the Russian president by attracting major sporting events in order to restore his image with his people.

Sport is like a tool of soft power in the hands of the Hungarian Prime Minister. Less than a year after hosting four Euro football matches, Hungary signs another first in Magyar history by attracting one of the two biggest cycling races in the world. With the departure, Friday, May 6 in Budapest, of the Tour of Italy, Hungary of Viktor Orban collects yet another world sporting event.

This has been commonplace since the return of the nationalist Viktor Orban to the head of the government in 2010, he who has just been comforted by a fourth victory, overwhelming, in the legislative elections.

Football fanatic and ex-semi-professional player, Viktor Orban has made no secret of his ambitions to revive the golden years of “historic Greater Hungary”, the one before the First World War. Increasingly, his government is trying to use sport – especially football – to achieve domestic political goals, but also to see Hungary regain some influence in the region.

Strategy of Vladimir Putin

Semi-finals and final of the men’s handball Euro in the brand new Budapest Arena last January, the world swimming championships in June in the Duna Arena, then the world athletics championships next year in a new stadium under construction on the east bank of the Danube… The list of competitions hosted in Hungary is long.

Last year, two world judo championships were also hosted by Budapest, and before that in 2017, while Russian President Vladimir Putin was Orban’s guest of honor.

Since 2010, the Hungarian Prime Minister has approached the strong man of Moscow, whose inflation he imitated in the organization of competitions, until the banishment of Russia from world sport since the invasion of Ukraine.

►► Also read on France24.com: War in Ukraine: sport by sport, the sanctions imposed on Russia

However, unlike its neighbor to the east, Hungary has never hosted a football World Cup or the Olympic Games. Budapest’s bid for the 2024 Olympics was withdrawn a few months before the award in 2017.

The “Nolimpia” petition of the opposition movement Momentum, bringing together young activists, had collected more than 266,000 signatures, in order to organize a referendum against Budapest’s candidacy for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

The Russian president, for his part, had succeeded in bringing to Russia the two flagship sporting events of the planet: the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, and the 2018 World Cup.

But nothing to stop Orban. In Hungary, infrastructures are multiplying in spite of everything. In addition to the recent Olympic swimming pool (Duna Arena) and the future athletics stadium, the city also has the Budapest Sportarena which hosted the Final 4 of the Handball Champions League last year, but also the majestic Puskas Arena, opened in 2019 and which alone cost nearly 600 million euros.

For Orban, sport is “a tool to legitimize his authority”

Despite the snub inflicted by Momentum [parti centriste hongrois] to the nationalist right in power, the 58-year-old Prime Minister has not said goodbye to his dream of the Olympics. The latter believes that with an increasing number of state-of-the-art stadiums, Budapest’s chances are increasing.

In a report interview of the Tokyo Games granted in August to the sports daily Nemzeti Sportof which he is a regular columnist, the Hungarian Prime Minister assured that he “[était] more and more evident every year that Hungary [était] worthy of hosting the Olympics.”

“The possibility has gone away, for the moment. But hosting the Olympics is an eternal dream for Hungarians. A love that never ends,” ignited the authoritarian-style leader.

“Today, sport is a political weapon,” summarizes Lukas Aubin, associate researcher at Iris, specializing in the geopolitics of sport and Russia, to AFP. “Even if it doesn’t work that much to improve his image abroad, it is a tool to legitimize his authority, to justify the importance of his regime.”

In Russia, the image of the president has not been consolidated abroad, but it has worked inside”, supports the researcher, author of the book “La sportokratura sous Vladimir Putin”.

Passionate about football, Viktor Orban also used his favorite sport as an instrument of national affirmation. Most of the big clubs are under the leadership of people close to the Prime Minister. “For years the garnerable income in Hungarian football has not depended on the market, but on political-economic relations, specialist Gabor Szabados explains to Slate. Each club tries to find a suitable owner. Those with the best political connections enable their club to succeed economically.”

On Wednesday, in this country with a weak cycling tradition, a compact crowd gathered in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square to attend the presentation of the teams. Starring Hungarian Attila Valter, who last year became the first representative of his country to wear the pink jersey of the Giro.

With AFP

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