Nationalism and sport intersection in Hungary

A significant upsurge in right-wing political populism is observable across the globe. Europe has been nursing tendencies that are frequently associated with identity politics, ethno-nationalism, racism, sexism, anti-elitism and a general sense of ‘them vs. us’ attitude. This is particularly true of Hungary where a right-wing political regime has been in place since 2010, the year which beckoned the reign of the Viktor Orbán-led coalition government and the deployment of sport for political propaganda purposes. Although at the early stages of the history of Hungarian populist movements sport did not play a role, it generally became central to political agendas since the 1950s. In the post-1990 era, specifically, the Fidesz-led (Hungarian Civic Alliance) governments have capitalised on sport’s national popularity and have built it into their political strategy.

To give centrality to sport-politics connections, this blog briefly explores the right-wing populism and sport intersection within the current political context in Hungary.

Historical evidence demonstrated that current right-wing political sentiments rest on a long line of historical populist movements. Whilst sport was not always part of the toolkit of populist politics in Hungary, it became a key marker of national and ideological identity from 1950s onwards. Directly after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Hungarian politicians were circumspect about their relations to/with sport to delineate themselves from political practices dominant in Sovietised Hungary. However, the Fidesz-led coalition government significantly changed this strategy and have incorporated sport into their political agenda and narrative. Fidesz and its leader, Viktor Orbán, representing right-wing populist political directions, have been effectively using sport, elite athletes and the renovation of sport facilities both in and outside of Hungary to (re)define Hungarianhood and reinforce connections with over-the-border ethnic Hungarians.

However, at closer inspection, some of the key narratives of the Orbán government reveal inconsistencies in terms of how their core values are applied. In fact, it can be demonstrated that the government have built a necropolitical scaffolding to their right-wing populist approach, which has allowed them to deploy their own political interpretation around the nation, Magyarhood and sport in an arbitrary fashion to increase their popularity. In so doing, they excluded Syrian but accepted Ukrainian refuges and have continuously and effectively used sport and athletes to further stabilise their narrative around unity, Hungarianhood and the greatness of the nations. While the southern borders of the country are tightly policed to keep migrants out, some outstanding foreign and plural-nationality athletes are excessively celebrated in the hope of securing national athletic kudos. An example to consider here is the case of Sándor Shaolin Liu and Shaoang Liu – two Chinese-Hungarian speed skaters.

The Liu brothers rose to national and international prominence when they won the first gold medal for Hungary in the history of the Winter Olympics in 2018 as part of the 5000-meter skating relay team. The sporting achievement was perceived as exceptional. Viktor Orbán noted on his Facebook page the following: ‘Grateful for living to see this day! Go Hungarians!’. It was then noted that Orbán had ‘to face the uncomfortable truth that sons of an ‘economic migrant’ [Liu brothers’ father] made up half of the Hungarian speed skating team’ and were coached by a Chinese national. In other words, Orbán’s civic nationalism, i.e., the celebration of the Liu brothers’ skating achievement, is in direct opposition to his long-term narrative around preserving ethnic homogeneity, the dominance of western Christianity and Hungarian culture. This contradiction has been pointed out in Orbán’s political narrative: in October 2017, Orbán asserted that ‘assimilation, the adoption of other languages and mixed marriages [and same sex relationships] represent mortal [and moral] dangers to the Hungarian nation’. The incongruency in the Hungarian government’s narrative around sport, migration and national belonging again points towards the arbitrary application of Magyarhood, its membership and fundamental components.

In sum, Orbán embracing the Liu brothers (and other migrant athletes) as part of Magyarhood reflects a civic nationalist approach to nation building, which is not in line with the usual ethno-nationalism followed and celebrated by the Prime Minister and his right-wing party, Fidesz. Hence, it remains somewhat questionable (perhaps even ironic) when Orbán cheers for the Liu brothers with his signate statement: ‘Go Hungarians!’

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