Pál Schmitt, Former President of Hungary, International Olympic Committee Member

  • 20 Jul 2021 10:08 AM
Pál Schmitt, Former President of Hungary, International Olympic Committee Member
Born 13 May 1942, he was a successful fencer in his youth, going on to win two Olympic gold medals. Later he became a politician, and served as President of Hungary from 2010 until his resignation in 2012. Today he is one of the 100 or so active members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In 2015, Schmitt was appointed Chairman at the first meeting of the EU's Sports Diplomacy Advisory Group. To-date he has served for 21 years on the Hungarian Olympic Committee. Click here for more about his background, here's a link to his first XpatLoop.com Interview in 2006.

What kind of Olympics do you imagine it will be in Japan?

Certainly very different from any previous Games due to this pandemic. I think Japan is the one country in the world singularly ready and able to organise the Olympics at this time. They are very determined, and also very fond of the Olympic movement.

It’s worth remembering they already held both Summer and Winter Olympics, which were extremely successful, and that Japanese people love sports in general.  

We are lucky they are the organisers this time, they were ready to postpone the games, and now even in such difficult circumstances they are ready to organise it to the best of their ability. All the usual Olympic events are set to take place during the upcoming 16 days in Tokyo.

Are there still any organisational uncertainties?

Yes there are. There have been lots, and there still are some. Until recently they were to allow 10,000 spectators at every event. Then they reduced that number to 5,000, and most recently they decided not to allow any spectators.

They are keeping all the numbers down, including VIP's, sponsors, and accompanying people to the athletes, not just during the sports but during the opening and closing ceremonies as well. They are trying to reduce all numbers for safety reasons of course, to avoid spreading the virus.

So at first a decision was made not to allow any oversees spectators to attend, and then a decision was made not to even allow any Japanese fans to be there. They know what’s going on in Japan and it is not for us to decide for them from far away.

Another example is they decided not to hang medals around the necks of winners, but instead present medals on a tray.

Also the Olympic Oath has been changed to highlight inclusion, non-discrimination and equality for the Tokyo Games’ Opening Ceremony. Plus only 1000 people will be allowed to attend that ceremony.

What will be your responsibilities in Japan as an IOC member?

Well, for example IOC members are the only ones who traditionally have the right to present the medals. There are over three hundred events, each needs a medal presentation ceremony, and of the 101 IOC members I presume only 90 will attend. Therefore the IOC members in attendance will have more than 4 medal presentation duties each.

IOC members will have a meeting session before the games starts, as finally we will be able to meet in person after two years apart - during Covid lockdowns we had all our meetings online.

Also we will have the right and privilege to be introduced to the highest dignitary in the host country – in this case it will be either the Emperor or the Prime Minister of Japan. This might be already decided, but IOC members were not informed yet.

Plus we are present at all kinds of related festive events. Although unfortunately many of them had to be cancelled this time due to pandemic restrictions, but the members have to be present at every single event that takes place, so say if anything unexpected occurs we can make quick and flexible decisions.

At the end of the Games we will have a last meeting session, then the closing ceremony, and will have the final presentation of the organising committee. So all in all we will be busy, but this is usual.

How do you expect Hungary will perform at this Olympics?

I am very optimistic. First of all that’s based on the size of our delegation. The size is larger than it was in London, and in Rio de Janeiro. 176 athletes qualified this time, including team events like the two Water Polo teams and the ladies Handball team. We are represented in 18 different sports in total, which was not the case previously.

For example, this time we will participate in Archery, and say in Taekwondo, which did not happen in the last four or five games.

So qualification was successful, and the size of the team is middle category – we are in the first twenty nations who send more than 150 athletes. Of course the US, Russia, Canada, and the UK are traditionally present with three or four hundred athletes. Accordingly we belong to the middle category or second class as a country.

Specifically, what is your prediction regarding results?

As you probably know, there are key Olympic sports in which Hungarians are traditionally successful, the three main ones being Swimming, Kayak/Canoe and Fencing.

Previously we also got gold medals in Athletics, Shooting, Boxing, Wrestling, and Judo, so we have had good results not just in the three key sports I mentioned.

This time I think we will win around 18 medals altogether, counting all Bronze, Silver and Golds, according to my latest calculation.

Which Hungarian athletes do you think will emerge as stars?

We have a very gifted Swimmer, Kristóf Milák, in butterfly first of all but he is capable of doing other types of strokes, just like the former American champion Michael Phelps. Milák is very talented, most probably he will deliver one or two gold medals.

Also in Swimming, we still have Katinka Hosszú, she got a gold medal in Rio, and we hope she gets another one this time.

Then we have Kayak, let’s look at the lady participants, specifically at Danuta Kozák who won three Olympic golds in Rio, and I think she can win gold this time, both individually and in the Kayak Four and Kayak Double events.

In Fencing it is more difficult to predict results, but we are there! Meaning we have chances in all the weapon categories, Foil, Epee and Saber, in both the men and women’s categories.

Speaking of men and women, for the first time ever at this Games in the opening ceremony all countries will be represented by both a man and a woman holding the national flags. This is a clear message that the IOC cares about gender balance. In every sport where men participate there will be an event for women as well. In every single sport, let it be football, judo, wrestling.

But it is also a fact that there are certain events where men cannot participate, I could say this is discrimination but consider the sports in question are Synchronised Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics.

Back to your question, we have a good representative in the Rhythmic Gymnastics as well this year. I hope she will perform well for Hungary since that was not the case looking back at the last three or four games. She is very gifted and talented.

Most of all I hope all Hungarian participants to be ‘clean’, as no positive doping case should happen.  I wish all participants to be fair, and behave like a real Olympians and to well represent the Hungarian nation.

What makes a true Olympian in your opinion?

First of all, an Olympian is an Olympian forever. Once you had the privilege to represent your nation in this way, there are rights and responsibilities given to you when you perform for your country at the largest festival of sports in the world, the Olympic Games.

An Olympian, independently of the result they achieve, has to behave as an Olympian. Later, after the Games, she or he has to continue being an Olympian, a role model for others regarding achievement and discipline, one who also proves to be able to sometimes combine sport and learning and development.

The number one requirement is to be fair, the second is it be clean, the third is to bring the best out of themselves.

Once they are selected, they have to be totally focused to deliver the best performance of their lives. They have to be good citizens, good Hungarians. Rivals have to be respected, those selected to represent other countries at the Olympics have to be appreciated. We have to shake hands after every single event, whether we win or lose. This sends an important message.

Which athletes from other countries are you excited to see in Tokyo?

Taking in consideration that I have been an IOC member for 37 years, soon to be 38, that I myself am an Olympian, and that I have presided over the Hungarian Olympic Committee for 21 years, I am familiar with many things going on in the Olympic movement, not only in Hungary but all over the world.

So I can say stars come and go, but there are a few long standing ones in some particular sports of course. So I will spend all 16 days in Japan visiting all the sporting events, independent of the fact if they include Hungarian participants or not. So you see I am excited to see athletes performing from all the countries involved.

On another level, I can say all the Federation presidents are good friends of mine - I know them not just in their official capacities but as real friends. I treat them all equally, let it be the FIFA president or the new president of the swimming federation, FINA or IJF the judo federation, to show my commitment to all the sports, each is important, there are no distinctions to make from this perspective.

Ok, then over the years, which athletes did you find most outstanding?

It started for me in Mexico, where I witnessed Bob Beamon make that fantastic 8.9 m world record Long Jump. I was there with Dick Fosbury from the US when he made that special ‘flop’ and world record in the High Jump.

I was an athlete when Mark Spitz won seven gold medals. I was there when Carl Louis the sprinter and Long Jumper became famous. And also I have seen some amazing teams, like the American Basketball team win gold.

I have watched tennis players like Federer, who was extremely happy as a professional Tennis player to win an Olympic gold. And I admire the Japanese Judo tradition. The Japanese ladies are unbeatable, and so are their men come to that. 

I have witnessed great Fencers win gold, just as I did, they can stay on the top a little bit longer than in other sports. A 35 year old fencer is not regarded as too old, which you cannot say in Gymnastics for instance.

Also I was there when Michael Phelps won his medals, the list goes on, they are just some of the highlights I have enjoyed over the years.

What do you think about Dressage as an Olympic sport?

I like it very much. It needs a lot of different qualities to be successful in Dressage, including a good horse. Unfortunately a good horse is worth around 1 million US Dollars, which is not affordable for everybody of course.

I have to say the cooperation between the man and horse in this sport is an excellent example of what can be achieved given what a top performance they deliver. I really admire them. It is a good discipline, a special one in which both the man and the horse are regarded as participants, yet these types of horses are rare to find and so it is not for everyone.

Take another niche yet more popular sport like Squash, why is it not in the Olympics?

Over the years the IOC has added various sports to the Games, and so the number of athletes and the number of events kept growing and growing. It started to seem to us like some kind of ever increasing number.

So in the year 2000 we decided not to allow more than 11,500 athletes in the Olympic Village, and not to have more than 300 gold medals awarded at each Games, and not to have more than 28 different sports.

It was a tough decision and by now time has proved that it cannot be kept as it is, because the demand for new sports is stronger and stronger.

Now, squash is an excellent sport, however we already have tennis, table tennis, and badminton. So we already have three similar sports and so cannot take a fourth one on board. This is the logic behind it. It is not against squash as such, it is internationally recognised as an exceptional sport, but the Olympic program is already full.

Sports like Squash are not exactly TV friendly are they, is that important?

Well if golf is there… Imagine, twenty years ago who would have thought golf fits in with TV programming? And these days it is doing quite well.

Personally, I like squash, for now though squash is going to remain mainly for those who love it as a free time sport, for the reasons given, which is not so much about being TV friendly.

For a particular sport to become an Olympic sport you need, in the case of women, 75 countries minimum, and in the case of man 100 countries, where national organisations exist, national champions exist, where there are doping rules enforced, with official and well trained referees, with gender equality assured.

The sport’s rules need to be clear, easy to transmit, easy to understand, and so on. So there are a lot of requirements, that is why there is a commission for sports programs within IOC. I can imagine squash is always on their table. As you know there is a lobby for it to become an Olympic sport, that’s how a decision will be made on such a topic for not only squash but for all new sports requesting inclusion in the Olympic Games.

How important is ‘Sports Diplomacy’ these days?

Well, Sports Diplomacy is a part of diplomacy overall. It is an extension of it. If we speak about diplomacy, we speak first of political, bilateral, multilateral, we also speak about scientific, business and cultural diplomacy. When we speak about cultural diplomacy, sport is in there – it belongs there.

Sport is a form of soft diplomacy you know, often an easier approach to take, sometimes it is quicker to solve a problem using Sports Diplomacy.

But sometimes sports can cause diplomatic problems too. Events like sports boycotts, or tragic sporting events – they create issues that have to be solved with good diplomacy. Like Munich, or Atlanta, or the fight against discrimination, like Apartheid in South-Africa.

So diplomacy is everywhere actually, and Olympians themselves are a sort of diplomat, acting as ambassadors of a country.

There are always problems that can be solved in a ‘nice way’ with a soft approach. For example, in judo. An Iranian judoka was not willing to go to the tatami mat with an Israeli. Sports Diplomacy solved that issue.

Then there are the Chinese, who do not recognise Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate counties. They are all members of the IOC and they have their own national anthem, own flag, etc. This creates tensions and so Sports Diplomacy has a very real role to play at the Olympics.

And there is the case of the two Koreas, whether they go together to the Games or separately. Do they want to unite for the Olympics, if so which flag would they use, and which anthem should be played?

Plus importantly there is the Russian case nowadays.  What happens with the Russians as a whole after all that happened in that country regarding doping? Some of them should clearly be suspended, but should we penalise the clean Russian athletes? All this takes much Sports Diplomacy.

What’s your view about athletes ‘taking the knee’?

This is a topic which divides opinion of the National Olympic Committees, and the athletes themselves.

Actually, I wrote a letter to the President of the IOC and asked him to help all the Olympic ceremonies stay free of any type of protests, be it ‘Black Lives Matters’ or any type of protest or demonstration of individual opinion.

Personal opinions should not be expressed during the Olympic ceremonies in my view. This is because athletes have the opportunity to talk about any kind of topic they choose on other platforms, even during the Olympics, as in their position they have access to the media - official ceremonies should only be about celebrating sports.

I was the Chief of Protocol for 16 years at IOC, I wrote the Book of Protocol for the organisation. So when I wrote to the President of the IOC about this topic I told him that I respect with sorrow what has happened in the George Floyd incident in the US, and I would indeed describe it as a truly very tragic event, yet this is not the only issue that matters to humanity these days.

The whole world faces many very serious issues currently, like the sustainability issue, environmental protection, minority rights topics in some countries, there are serious human rights issues in many places. There are so many other important topics worth mentioning too, so it is not only the ‘Black Lives Matter’ topic that is concerning.

If we open the Pandora’s Box of worldwide issues it would become an endless story of protests during the opening ceremony or at the many medal awards presentations. The athletes could choose so many different ways to show which issues they care for.

The world is divided today, maybe because of Anglo-Saxon people. The Olympics is not, and should not be divided about these types of things in my humble opinion.

I took my oath when I became an Olympian that I wouldn’t show any discrimination based on religion, or skin colour, or political view, or anything else. 

The view of IOC is that everyone has the right to express themselves, and this has to be taken very seriously but not in every single moment. Leave the Olympics ceremonies free of any protests I say. Some IOC members are divided on this matter I have to say too.

Let’s talk about basic rights – democracy, freedom of expression, the freedom of movement, and so on. I was the President of Hungary ten years ago, and I signed the constitution of this country which is still in force today. The number one right is the right to life, the second one to live with dignity, and the rest follow from there. That was my opinion then, and it is still that now, and there are quite a few who think the same.

It is one thing we have all these rights but we also have to respect others have the same rights too. Respecting other people's human dignity became a very important matter these days.

Which was your favourite Olympic Games so far?

I would say my first one in Mexico, since I came back with a gold.

But it was not a problem free Olympics because a couple of days before the Games there were protesters against it due to the issue of poverty. Protestors said it is a luxury to organise the Games in the country where there is extreme poverty. The police shot some student demonstrators but the organisation of all the Olympic event went on like clockwork - the mood of the general public at that time about such things was much different from what it is now.

It shows Mexicans to be very friendly people even under difficult circumstances. That Olympics was held 2700 m above sea level, so we had to try to adapt to such altitude, but it affected everybody. Despite everything it was one of my favourite Olympics.

I liked the Games in Sydney very much too – it was all so smooth, perfectly organised, with not a single problem occurring. The volunteers were exceptionally friendly there, even my driver was constantly smiling and always ready to help. Every Australian regarded it as their own Games, they really did show their commitment to the Olympics and proved that their full heart was in it. That really was an excellent Games, let's see what Japan has in store.

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