BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian water polo standout Marton Szivos will be carrying a big burden of national and family expectations at the Beijing Olympics.
His father and grandfather collected seven Olympic water polo medals, including three golds, between 1948 and 1980, and Marton is poised to make his debut with the defending Olympic champions in August.
Just making it to Beijing is not enough, however, for a country that values only golds and considers water polo not just its national sport but almost its national property.
“Water polo to Hungary is like football to Brazil,” said Istvan Szivos Jr, Marton’s father who won four Olympic medals. “But it’s also a terribly spoiled country which considers silver medal a disappointment.”
Marton, 26, has to walk past the family’s haul of medals every day in his home.
“I used to look at the medals all the time but not any more,” Marton said. “But even if I don’t look, they’re always in the back of my mind and there’s an inner drive in me that I want one, too.”
Marton learned to harden up in 2004 when he failed to get into the Olympic team and lost a chance to extend the family legacy. Many thought he had a sure spot on the national squad but he was one of the last players to be cut and had to watch as his friends defended Hungary’s Olympic title.
“That victory actually lifted my spirits,” Marton said. “Not making the team got me very hungry for a chance to prove myself.”
The Beijing team will not be selected until a few weeks before the Games but experts say Marton’s spot is firm.
Hungary have won 14 water polo medals in 24 Olympic Games, including eight golds.
Their most famous victory was not even a title match. It was the 1956 semi-final in Melbourne against the Soviet Union.
The match was fought just weeks after Soviet tanks crushed an anti-communist uprising in Hungary, killing thousands, and tension was running high in the pool and the stands.
It was unusually rough from the start and got out of control after Hungary’s Ervin Zador took a punch in the face that opened a bleeding gash over his eye.
With the angry anti-Soviet crowd threatening to turn into a mob, the game had be called off with about a minute left and Hungary, leading 4-0, were declared the winners.
The team went on the next day to win the final and Istvan Szivos Sr, Marton’s grandfather, collected his third Olympic medal.
“My memory of 1956 is that we sat in the cellar, our bomb shelter, for two weeks, listening to the radio,” Istvan Jr. said. “We waited for father to return at the train station in a huge crowd but we didn’t really have a place to go home to as our apartment was bombed out.”
With such a family history, Marton said becoming a water polo player was unavoidable.
“I played soccer; for a single day,” Marton said. “It was just natural that I’d become a polo player, especially given the family environment.”
Hungary’s water polo success is a boon at a time when the country is struggling with sports.
The nation which gave the soccer world Ferenc Puskas and the “Golden Team” of the 1952 Olympics has faded as an international power and ranks 56th in the world.
The country’s Olympic committee estimates that the number of registered, competitive athletes has fallen by a third since the 2004 Games as athletes, coaches and clubs struggle for money and parents are scared off by news of doping abuse.
Hungary are hoping for just five or six gold medals in Beijing, down from eight in both 2004 and 2000.
Water polo has been immune from the country’s struggles as sponsors flock to the sport and children swarm pools, hoping to follow their heroes’ example. As other sports struggle, pressure mounts on the water polo team to deliver.
The central bank this month released its Olympic commemorative coin which features a water polo player rising out of the pool, preparing to shoot.
Marton says he feels relaxed ahead of Beijing.
“There’s no pressure. It is simply a great honor that I can be part of a team with such a rich history of success,” he said. “This team has every chance to win, it’s filled with great talent.”
Editing by Dave Thompson and Clare Fallon