BUDAPEST (Reuters) - An Olympic medal is the only one missing from Viktor Horvath’s collection and, given Hungary’s modern pentathlon heritage, success for the 30-year-old in Beijing is almost a requirement.
The 2007 world and European champion admits he is feeling the pressure. “I’m an Olympic newcomer and I feel the burden, I just hope I don’t crack,” Horvath said.
Hungarians have won 21 Olympic pentathlon medals, more than any other country except Sweden which dominated the sport in its early years.
“From the cradle onwards we learn that we’re winners and we’re always confronted with our predecessors’ legacy,” Zsuzsa Voros, the defending women’s Olympic champion, said.
Hungary’s pentathlon glory days crested during the 1960s and 1970s and despite fading since the end of communism the country has medaled at every Olympics over the past half-century except for the Los Angeles Games in 1984, which it boycotted.
Modern pentathletes have to compete in shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding and running — all the skills a 19th century cavalry soldier required.
The event was created by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, on the model of the ancient pentathlon which combined running, wrestling, long jump, discus throw and javelin throw, the skills of a soldier in battle.
Coubertin said the event “tested an athlete’s moral qualities as much as their physical resources and skills, producing thereby the ideal, complete athlete” and, initially, it was open only to soldiers.
The sport was first contested at the 1912 Games in Stockholm where Lieutenant George S. Patton, who went on to become the famous U.S. World War Two general, placed fifth, missing a medal because of a poor shooting score.
In the 1950s, Hungary’s communist authorities pumped money into sports and the first generation of pentathlon champions helped to encourage the next. In the 1960s, Andras Balczo won five consecutive world titles.
“Hungarian kids grow up in an environment where we always fight for gold,” said Antal Kulcsar, head coach of the women’s national team and a coach since 1977. “Some people see a bronze medal as a medal won. We see bronze as a gold lost.”
The secret has been good coaching, a wide talent pool and the relentless work of past greats with athletes of the future.
“There isn’t another sport where all the legends, all the past champions come together to help future generations,” Miklos Palvolgyi, the head coach of the men’s team said.
“At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, coaches from eight different countries, wearing eight different uniforms all spoke the same language: Hungarian,” said Janos Martinek, a pentathlon gold medalist in Seoul.
The sport has struggled in recent Olympics because of a lack of media attention. The event was first shortened to one day from five days and then the team event was scrapped.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) even considered axing modern pentathlon from the Games because it said not enough nations participated, but decided in 2005 to keep it on the programme at least until 2012.
“Pentathlon is not a TV-friendly sport and if a sport is not good for TV, it is worthless for sponsors,” Horvath said. “And let’s be honest, sports are about money now.”
Voros said dropping pentathlon would be a disgrace. “This would be the humiliation of the Olympic spirit,” she said.
Other Hungarians believe it is rooted too deeply in the Olympic movement to be removed.
“Because this sport is so closely linked to Baron Coubertin, I believe it enjoys a sort of immunity and with time, we’ll gain our lost strength back, I’m not worried,” coach Palvolgyi said.
With the Games less than two months away, Horvath is concentrating on recovering from a calf injury that forced him to pull out during the last event at the world championships in Budapest earlier this month.
“The Olympics are more important, I had to quit to save my Olympics,” he said as he limped off the running course.
Despite his injury, confidence remains high in the Hungarian camp. “We will bring home a medal, that much I can almost guarantee,” Martinek said.
Reporting by Balazs Koranyi, Editing by Clare Fallon