The journey continues in Hungary, and I’m doing my best to get to know the people and what makes them tick. That involves talking to as many as possible, seeimg what they like to do and looking into their history. Seems that Hungary has something of a heroes culture. Go to Budapest and you find Heroes Square, in Szeged there is the Bridge of Heroes. But it goes deeper than that. My friend Janos explained to me how Hungarians are known for being a bit individualistic, that the pinnacle of success is to be that lone start shining brightest in the night. I imagine that this could be a bit problematic in some contexts, but now is not the time to be diagnosing a country’s psyche. Instead I will combine this idea with my favourite topic: sport. So let’s talk about individuals in sport.
A quick bit of back ground first. Hungarians are especially fond of a couple of sports. One is football (of course) but I will not dwell on that here. The other is water polo. Two teams attempt to drown each other while manoeuvring a ball into a net. Classic invasion game, just in water. Despite being a landlocked country Hungary is actual quite strong for water sports due to their extensive network of rivers. Water polo holds a special place in particular, thanks to some history. In 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics the Hungarian water polo team were putting in a strong showing as usual, and made the semi-final. Here they faced the mighty USSR team. More than a classic underdog story, Hungary had recently had an uprising crushed by the soviets, and so feelings were not positive. The match therefore was a momentous, nation-personality defining occasion. The game itself proved titanic, known afterwards as the Blood in the Water match or the Bloodbath of Melbourne.
To a nation’s external joy, they won 4-0. They then went on to clinch gold, and so seal their position in the history books as Hungarian heroes. This game even inspired two films: “Freedom’s Fury” and “Children of Glory”. Thus, given the sport’s importance here, while in Budapest I resolved to go watch some water polo for myself. Down at the Alfred Hajos swimming complex I watched two teams do battle. It was enjoyable, end-to-end stuff, with goals less common than scores in handball or basketball, hence each generating quite a lot of excitement. Much of each player is hidden below the water, so aside from their numbers you only really get to know players by their play and when they are rotated out of the pool and clamber onto the side. But still some stand out. The visiting team (Kerteszeti Egyeten Atletikai Club)’s number 12 was prominent in this regard. Sturdy defence, implacable offence, the team surged into a 4-2 lead around him. When taking a breather poolside he still commanded a presence. Barrel chest, thick arms, a powerful form that said “You shall not get past or move me, no matter how you try”. He strutted without walking, bellowed without speaking, glared without looking.
You get these individuals in every team sport. Not so much the star player, although they are certainly good. But they command respect; things happen around them. They may look the part or sound the part but often you simply fucking know it when they walk onto the pitch or dive into the pool. They are the Charismatic Megafauna* of their sporting arena: visible, impressive, heroic even.
It happened at the basketball in Valencia. Valencia Basket’s number 41: Hamilton. Young, American, and at the centre of everything good the team did. You were alerted to his presence when the player’s names were being read out; a little extra whoop, the added flavour of anticipation and belief. In the handball too, this time there was Morrell for BM Canyamelar Valencia. She was a leader, calm in defence, precise in attack, a veritable heartbeat. And we loved her for it. We love them for it.
Every culture has its myths and epics, everyone their heroes. Achilles, Beowulf, Mulan. We love to weave fact and myth, the real and fiction, creating part dream part genuine figures to tell our friends and our children about. Sport’s great for this. Generating legends constantly. Every weekend there are new heroes to celebrate, new epic deeds to reveal in, new stories to tell. That star performance, that comeback, that last minute penalty save. I don’t think we would like sport as much if it did not create this situation. It must appeal to some part of our psyche that loves stories, that was weaned around campfires in the dark swapping tales of triumph through storm and strife.
Back at the water polo, and there was a momentum shift. The home side (UVSE Continental) came roaring back. 3-4, 4-4, suddenly 5 and 6 goals without reply. And a change came over the Charismatic Megafauna, the no. 12 of KEAC. No longer glaring but gazing wistfully. No long immovable in defence but lumbering after shadows. No longer powerfully built but heavy, possibly even a little tubby. His leading light extinguished, his charisma depleted. He was still the same man, same number, same terribly continental European little green swimming trunks. But he was also so much less.
What was the cause? How had the home team brought an end to his spell? There was no rival sent out to duel, no nemesis unleashed to bring about his downfall. Instead the home side all reached that little bit higher. They all put their hands up to be counted, and together they overcame the deficit to win. What magic. What a story for the next day. What a set of heroes.
* this term is borrowed from conservation biology, and refers to the often big and impressive animals like lions, elephants and even pandas that attract most peoples interest. This leads to their use as flagships by conservation organisations to draw interest to their cause, and so often helping other animals as well.