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Olympic Games Countdown: Can Hungary restore its fortunes?

Laszlo Papp
Can Hungary reclaim the glories of yesteryear, wonders Chris Kempson in his Olympic Games Countdown

HUNGARY, now a democratic republic, once big on the Olympic boxing medal scene, has fallen on hard times. Are they set to stay or will a resurgence in their Olympic fortunes start in Rio?

Hungary nestling in mid-Europe has a population of around ten million and by any standards has excelled, mainly in the past, with its return on Olympic boxing medals. The tally is thus: ten golds, two silver and three bronze from twenty Games. Not bad by any standards, especially if you are a small country with a variety of other top class sports under your medal belt, all vying for fine sportsmen too.

In 1924 Hungary entered one boxer for the first time with no reward. Four years late in 1928, flyweight, Antai Kocsis won gold and a further years on gold was acquired by Istvan Evekes again in the flyweight division. The Berlin Games of 1936 saw lightweight, Imre Harangz claim gold.

In London in 1946 a certain southpaw, Laszlo Papp, caught the eye at middleweight and won a gold medal, he repeated this feat twice more, although dropping down to light-middleweight to claim his hat trick of golden triumphs. Papp’s extraordinary achievements were achieved when in 1945 Hungary became internally under communist rule and externally under the then Soviet Union. Papp later turned professional and finished as middleweight champion of Europe (EBU), retiring with an unblemished paid record of twenty-nine contests, including two drawn contests. He may well have landed a professional world crown had he been allowed to box for it, being denied an exit visa by the Hungarian authorities when a world title contest was on the line for him. Professionalism as such was frowned upon in those days by countries under communist rule and therefore all of his paid contests had to be boxed abroad, thus denying his huge home support the chance to see their hero take on the best around in the paid ring. They had to be content with their personal amateur memories of him.

The late Laszlo Papp was without doubt one of the greatest Olympic champions of all time and perhaps even in an era when competition was not as fierce and widespread as today, he remains forever a sporting icon for his country and the Olympic movement. Indeed he only lost one round during his entire Olympic exploits and that was to Jose Torre (USA) in his last Olympic final in Melbourne. His team-mate, bantamweight Tibor Csik won a bronze in London.

The only major surprise in Papp’s amateur career was that he did not ever win the Val Barker trophy at the Games, which is given for the best “stylist” and was first introduced at the Berlin Games in 1936. All I can muse it that there must have been some super, super stylists apart in London, Helsinki and Melbourne, or had Papp already been seen as winning just that little bit too much. We shall never know, but I for one remain very, very surprised that he didn’t land the coveted Val Barker prize some time during his twelve year Olympic reign. Normally won by a gold medallist, the Val Barker trophy has been won once by a silver medallist and twice by bronze medallists.

When Laszlo had his day there was often a “Cold War” (East-West) officials and judges divide, maybe this had something to do with it as well! Val Barker winners when Papp had his say came from the then South Africa, USA and indeed our own GB representative, Dick McTaggart. For any further doubts about the “Cold War” ramifications which existed at the time, look at Olympic welterweight bronze medallist in Melbourne, Nicky Gargano . He was the victim of a hotly disputed points loss in his semi-final bout with Necolae Linca from Romania. Indeed Linca eventually received the gold medal with another hotly disputed points decision in the Olympic final against Ireland’s Freddie Teidt. Over the years there have been some strange decisions in the Games and certainly the existence of the then “Cold War” was party it seems to have been the result of some of them.

Gold medal success continued in Rome in 1960 when Gyula Torok took the spoils in the flyweight division. A twelve year gap followed until 1972 when light-flyweight, Gyula Gedo achieved gold and then there was a wait until 1996 when bantamweight Istvan Kovacs secured Hungary’s last Olympic gold to date.

Hungary boycotted the 1984 Games, under Soviet pressure, but the communist yoke was soon to be lifted and five years later it finally was.

What does the communist era really tell us? Five golds were obtained then, three of them by the late great Papp, who surely would have triumphed under any political system; such was his expertise and prowess in the roped square. He really was that good and it seems unlikely that many, if indeed any , hattricks of gold medals are to be repeated in the future, although only time will tell of course. Certainly the political system of the day enabled boxers to concentrate fully on their sport and they were given a privileged position, many additional rights and benefits which were not afforded to other ordinary citizens. That said, you could have had all the back-up and committed support in the world, but without possessing sufficient talent it would count for nothing. In other words, many medallists from communist run countries would probably have flourished under other political climates.

Hungary’s last medal was won, a bronze, by middleweight Zsolt Erdei in Sydney 2000, so what does this tell us? Although Hungary continues, through the qualification process to send ,usually five boxers to each Games, undoubtedly the competition is stiffer these days and medals are ever more difficult to come by; it seems increasingly more difficult for smaller nations to make the same mark at the Olympics as they did before.

What they would give today for another Laszlo Papp, sadly this will not happen as those boxing greats only come along once in a lifetime, or probably once a century. So while prospects for Rio 2016 are not great for Hungary they remain a fine competitive nation and the success or lack of it won’t be for the want of trying. For those who can still remember Papp, they must be blessed that they were around when Laszlo had his say.

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