Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hungary No More?

Remember when Hungary was a gymnastics force?  No, neither do I.  But they were.  It's just that most of us weren't born yet.  Anyway, today I want to write a bit of an ode to Hungarian gymnastics.  Back in the day, they used to be a real power, always placing highly in team competitions, always vying for one of those top five spots in the team competition and perhaps less often winning team medals (in 1948 and 1936 and 1972).  It was surprising really, that they won them at all, considering a member of the Hungarian Gymnastics Federation once told a magazine that Gymnastics was not a popular sport in Hungary, that the men often did better than the women and that there were not many competitive opportunities for budding talent.  Somehow, they still managed a degree of success over the years.
Nowadays, we don't see them scoring highly in team comps, nor do we see some of the breakout champions we have seen in the olden days.  I think its pity, because some truly brilliant gymnasts came out of Hungary.  
There was a lot of personality among their gymnasts and also, on an incredibly shallow note, lovely leotard designs.  Perhaps, like many Eastern European countries, the Hungarian system has suffered though the fall of communism and the lack of central state funding.  Whatever it is, I hope they can build themselves again because I miss them.  But for now, here's a few of Hungary's greatest.

Agnes Keleti was the first Hungarian Champion and the most successful gymnast to ever come out of the country.  She became Hungarian National Champion at the age of 16. She competed in several Olympics, winning ten medals in her career, making her one of the most successful jewish gymnasts of all time.  During the second world war she was forced to go into hiding, pretending to be a christian maid in the Hungarian countryside while her father died in Auschwitz and her mother and sister went into hiding.  In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, she not only won three of the four individual medals but decided to remain in Melbourne to avoid the Soviet invasion of Hungary.  She then emigrated to Israel where she brought out her mother and sister and began coaching the Israeli National Team.

Beata Storcza was one of the most impressive of the Hungarian delegation in the 1980's. Unfortunately, due to the Soviet boycott in 1984, Beata did not get to compete at the Olympics, although she and her team trained at Deva with the Romanian team for two weeks up until the boycott was decided. Beata was known for her excellent floor work, a talent encouraged by Natalia Klimenko, a choreographer brought in by the Hungarian federation to work with the national team. Subsequently, according to Gymnastics Greats, she made the floor finals in three major competitions in her career. At the 1988 Olympics she came fifth in floor, her most successful placing. In the 1989 Worlds, she hurt her leg and declined to compete, a move that was criticized by her team mates and coach who believed she was "copping out". She retired shortly after, becoming a aerobics athlete and studying floristry.

Henrietta Onodi is of course, the most famous gymnast to ever emerge from the Hungarian gymnastics scene.  Known for her gorgeous lines and deceptive power,and stunning looks, she was always a pleasure to watch.  Her best events in terms of medals won were floor and vault, but she had terrific, difficult beam and bars sets giving her great all-around potential as well. She reigned through the late eighties and early nineties, winning a range  of international All- Around competitions, including the DTB, Chunichi Cup, Grand Prix events and becoming a World Champion on vault.

She medalled in both floor and vault at the 1992 Olympics.  She came home to an ecstatic welcome, one she was not expecting, "When we got back to the club the manager told us to go to the club and to wear our leotards.  I thought it was going to be a celebration like we always had, with just the gymnasts and coaches.  When I got to the club, there were policemen on motorcycles, two beautiful cars and they drove me and my teammates and a swimmer all around the town.  There were 5000 people waiting for us and for ten minutes we couldn't speak, they were clapping and cheering.  That's when I felt they really appreciated what i did and that feels really good."

Henrietta Onodi was one of the first gymnasts I ever saw featured on television outside of a competition.  Much to my new-gymnastics-fan excitement, Australia's main sports show, Wide World of Sport did a brief fluff piece on her when she first emerged on the scene, mostly waxing lyrical about her beautiful eyes and Eastern European heritage.  I was immediately intrigued by her, and watched her career at every opportunity I got.  And I wasn't disappointed.  According to Onodi . the Hungarian gymnastics system was a caring, kind one, compared to the cruelty she had heard about in the Russian and Chinese systems throughout her career. 
As well as having brilliant technique and expression, Onodi was one of the most self-deprecating gymnasts of her time.  There was not a shred of Bogey's diva-like air that came with her brand of floor work. When asked by International Gymnast magazine how she felt about being the World vaulting Champion, Onodi told Dwight Normille, "Good, but the world has not changed.  I am still the same.  It's a good feeling, but I am not in heaven.  I am very happy life is the same and training is the same.

Nicolette Krausz.  Known as "Kicksi", this young gymnast was looking to be Onodi's predecessor when she placed an astonishing 2nd in the Junior European All-Around competition behind Ana Maria Bican in 1994.  In 1996 she was part of the Olympic team that qualified without Henritta Onodi's high-scoring weight behind them.  Unfortunately she fell from the beam three times during team finals and only came 32nd in the all-around competition.  According to Gymnastics Greats and Krausz's coach, Nicolette never got over her beam disaster and never performed as well or competitively again.  In 1998 she left the sport, then returned in 2004, attempting a berth on the 2005 Debrecen team. ( I can't see any evidence that she did make it, not on Gymnastics Results anyway, though there was a gymnast competing for Hungary that year called Renata Kiss!)

Adrienn Varga was one of the most popular gymnasts to embark on the scene from Hungary in the late nineties.  She was an incredibly powerful vaulter, but also had good floor work and a skill named after her on bars.  She was known for her mature looks and her personality which was big enough to match that of her very close friend Svetlana Khorkina.  She was European Champion on vault in 1998 in St Petersburg.  She competed in the 1996 Olympics, coming  28th in the AA and 9th with her team.  She came from Bekescsaba, the same town as her gymnastics idol Henrietta Onodi.

1 comment:

  1. Could anyone in Hungary help me find a place for my 9 year old daughter to train while we are on vacation at Lake Balaton (Vonyarcvashegy). I have been trying to locate a gymnastics club (Keszthely, Zalaegerszeg, Veszprem) for her to train during the summers but could not find any. I would be willing to drive up to 2 hours each way but I think Budapest is a little too far). She is a competitive gymnast here in the US at level 5. We just need for her to stay in shape during the month we spend in Hungary. She practices about 15 hours a week right now. Any help would be greatly appreciated.