Hungarians are not only good at water polo, they are good at sports in general, especially at water sports.
When it comes to the Summer games, Hungary ranks among the top three countries on the Olympic medals per capita list and second on the gold medal per capita list, right after Finland. This is mostly due to a handful of semi-niche sports, such as fencing or pentathlon, as well as water sports: canoeing, swimming and water polo. A small nation of only 10 million, Hungary has a steady place on the all-time top 10 Olympic medal table.
Why is Hungary so good at sports then?
This is a complex issue that one can only speculate about. Originally a nomadic people with a strong military tradition and very successful first 500 years in Europe, once their power declined, Hungarians were involved in constant freedom fights and rebellions against greater powers. Following a historic Compromise with Austria in 1867, a new golden age of peace and development saw Hungary reintegrate into the European economy and the Western world in ways unseen for centuries. The country was again open to the latest trends and technologies, eager to adopt them. The ensuing defeat in World War I and the humiliating loss of two thirds of the country’s territory in the Treaty of Trianon brought about a sense of bitter revanchism. It is around the same time that modern team sports appear which Hungary is quick to adopt as early as Western European countries. One could argue that success in sports allowed this proud but repeatedly humiliated nation to channel its resentment and to maintain a sense of being “one of the big ones”.
Okay, so why especially water sports?
Hungary has two great rivers (Danube and Tisza), the largest lake in Central Europe (Balaton), several thermal springs and many smaller lakes. During hot summers, Hungarians love spending time at the lakeside and at artificial beaches. When water sports appeared on the scene, the country was well positioned with its strong aquatic culture and an excellent natural infrastructure.
So what’s the deal with water polo? Is there any secret to why Hungarians are so good?
There isn’t one unique factor that holds the key to water polo’s success in Hungary. Besides the fact that the country has generally excelled at sports in the recent past and besides the natural aquatic advantage, we can name a few more contributing factors.
1. Hungary entered the scene early – Hungarians took up water polo at an early stage. Water polo began in England and Scotland in the 1870's. It was then taken up by the USA in 1888, Germany and Austria in 1894, France in 1895 and Hungary in 1899.
2. Hungary was innovative – Hungarians not only started playing water polo very early on, but they also contributed to the development of the game, influencing the general rules and tactics. It was Hungary that introduced the ‘wet pass’. It also changed team formations with a fast moving centre back, which lead to the introduction of the ‘no moving rule’. Having significantly contributed to the development of the game, Hungarians felt more attached to this aquatic sport than many other nations.
3. Béla Komjádi – It could well be that the single most important factor is the relentless work of Béla Komjádi, the trainer who built up the first golden generation of Hungarian water polo. Komjádi was forced to become a trainer after being injured in World War I.
4. Politics, football & water polo – In the 20th century, sports and politics were very much intertwined as far as Hungary was concerned. To Hungarians, the defeat at the final game of the 1954 football World Cup was almost as traumatic an event as any military defeat. In 1956, it was the Hungarian water polo team that took a bloody revenge for the crushing of the Hungarian revolution by the Soviet tanks. In 1986, finally making it again to the World Cup, Hungary’s football team suffered a humiliating defeat of 0-6 against the Soviet Union. Again, the symbolism of it was crushing.
When Hungarian football declined, it was the water polo team that carried the torch of Hungarian greatness. Up to today, Hungarians see their water polo victories as only second best compared to the option of the nation’s football team climbing back into the highest league.
(Sources: A Short History of Water Polo, Uszodai sportok)
Men's Water Polo - Olympic Gold Medals Per Country: