Economics and a Sunday in Hungary
by Jeff Henderson
published in Slowtwitch.com
The day before Ironman Germany a brunch was held for members of the media by Opel Germany, a line of cars under General Motor's global umbrella. Opel had just signed a deal to sponsor the Frankfurt race for the next three years, and brunch was the media's chance to learn why. Beneath a sweltering tent we dined on sausages, fresh fruit, and omelettes while Thomas Hellriegel pretended he wanted to be there and I pretended I was there for more than the free food.
A very serious higher-up from Opel was introduced to our table and he uncomfortably joined us for a few moments to elucidate the thoughts of his marketing department.
"Triathlon," he informed me, "is a sport that carries many of the qualities we want people to associate with the new line of Opel cars. Triathlon is sleek, fit, tough, and elegant. And above all, triathlon is accessible to everyone, just like our cars."
Seven days and 800 kilometers later the European Triathlon Union (ETU) Youth Relay Championships occurred in Gyor, Hungary. I had never been to Hungary and, having two weeks between Frankfurt and Ironman Switzerland, I decided to make the trip. I went not knowing of the youth championships; the ITU's schedule indicated an international points race that same weekend, and that brought me to Gyor. Once I had arrived and deciphered the official timetable, though, I learned of the four races that would span the day of July 20th: youth relay girl and boy and ITU points race male and female. Let me tell you about Sunday, Hungary, and the future of triathlon in Eastern Europe... and how all of this relates to a car maker two countries away.
I slipped into Gyor, a small city about 100k from Vienna, on Friday evening. My first challenge in town was selecting the right withdrawal amount at the ATM - in leaving the European Union and its convenient euros I had forgotten to check the conversion rate. Would 5,000 forint get me through the weekend? How about 20,000? I tried my best guess and ultimately ended up with way too much (in case you're curious, it's around 240 forint to the U.S. dollar).
The night before the races I dined with the athletes at the "noodle party" in the Hotel Konferencia's banquet room in attempts to glean some information on the morning's youth relay. While a five-piece band belted out your favorite Hungarian tunes I saddled up to a table with an empty chair and sat down with three friendly-looking lads. Turns out they were from Sweden and their team had spent the last two days driving down through Europe, some twenty hours in all and many of them over what they termed "awful bad Polish roads." They spoke fine English and I grilled them over Hungarian-style pasta, which tastes quite excellent though I couldn't tell you what sort of meat was in it.
The youth relay is not three individuals teaming up to do one triathlon; it is three individuals teaming up to do three triathlons. The first contestant swims, bikes, and runs against the first members of the opposing teams, a tag is made and the second athlete takes to the water. First team to get the third member across the line is the winner.
The swim was 400m in the Raba River, the bike 12.5k in five loops through town, and the run 2.5k across the cobbles of old-town Gyor. The young Swedes informed me that triathlon is quite popular in Sweden, once the snow has melted.
Not much for smalltalk, my new friends finished their dinners and hastily retired to their rooms. They were replaced by Csilla and Zsuzsanna, two shy but curious Hungarian girls looking for seats in the crowded banquet room. Their English was not as good as that of the Swedes, and my Hungarian was not a good fallback option as we gestured our way through simple conversation.
The Hungarians informed me that their biggest concern for the morning was not the stiff current in the swim, not the run across the cobbles, but the numerous snakes that had been spotted in the river that morning. I tried to tell them that wildlife often means a healthy and non-polluted river, but either they didn't get what I was saying or they would have preferred toxic filth to serpentine accompaniment.
In the morning I took my place on the bridge over the mighty Raba to await the start of the female relay. I struck up a conversation with another journalist from Belgrade who spoke impeccable English, and she told me more about youth triathlon in Europe. This would be the third ETU Championships; the first was in Poland and last year's was in Austria. She told me that the ETU had struggled for years with two crucial problems: how to make triathlon more palatable to kids and what distances the youth triathlon should cover. Until then the sprint distance had been favored (750m/20k/5k), but that was often too long for the younger ages and popularity was waning.
Then the ETU's technical committee struck upon the idea of a relay, comprised of three athletes of ages 14-17 doing relatively short distances each. The concept was wildly popular, especially in Eastern Europe, and it makes a lot of sense why - the team element adds an important social aspect and the distances don't make the races overwhelming.
In Gyor 12 female and 23 male teams took part. The morning crowds were bigger than those in the afternoon for the ITU races, and a festival spirit filled the air. The Sunday market shared the downtown parking lot with the transition area, and if the race didn't bring the townsfolk out, this did. Need an old sword to add to your collection? How about some 5-foot spears, ancient clocks, bad oil paintings, or a poker for the fire? You could find it all on Sunday, and you could find it twenty paces from the finish line. A man from the country selling birds set up his cages in front of the Shimano tent; I dare say the pigeons were more popular than the wheelsets.
At 9 am sharp the first girls plunked into the snake-infested waters and began to churn. And they went nowhere - the current was zipping. It took the leader five and a half minutes to reach the 200m turnaround buoy and two minutes flat to get back to the dock. At times it appeared some of the weaker swimmers were losing ground.
Throughout the competition a thought troubled me; how do these kids afford this sport? The per capita income of Hungary is $7,600 (or around 1,748,000 forint) and an entry-level Trek will set you back at least 200,000 forint. Plus, kids have a nasty habit of changing size and the same bike that fits them this year will probably be too small next year. I delicately asked my question to a number of coaches and journalists. The responses ran the gamut from ignorance ("I don't know") to informed ("the British government provides stipends"). I concluded that, without external help of some sort, youth triathlon in Eastern Europe is the exclusive pursuit of the wealthy.
This reminded me of my conversation with the exec from Opel. In addition to Ironman Germany, Opel had also signed on for a three-year sponsorship of some of Germany's finest triathletes, men like Thomas Hellriegel and Stefan Holzner. The move to triathlon signaled the end of Opel's traditional support of a first-tier football (soccer) club in Germany.
I thought back to my first ITU race in Guatemala last year. I thought about the number of Guatemalan kids I had seen playing soccer in abandoned lots versus the number of kids I had seen out for a spin on their shiny Cannondales. I remember looking over the Opel line in Frankfurt and I finally knew what the exec meant to say - triathlon is accessible to those same people for whom Opel sport coupes are accessible. It would not do much for their bottom line, but imagine how many more kids could compete in youth triathlon if Opel would spend the same amount of money on it as they do for Ironman Germany.
Thankfully, the GDPs of the participating countries did not seem to drastically affect the competition. True, wealthy Great Britain won the boy's race, but their second team also took dead last and on the girl's side it was Hungary in first with the Ukraine in third. My Hungarian friends from dinner, unbeknownst to me, were champions of all Europe. And though we spoke far fewer words, I must admit I had a far better time dining with them than with Mr. Opel.