A broad smile breaks across the face of Csaba Burján (HUN) as he explains just how little the people of Hungary know about winter sports. The majority of the country’s population still have no idea that Short Track Speed Skating even exists, despite Burján being an Olympic Champion, having struck gold in the Men’s 5000m Relay at PyeongChang 2018 alongside Viktor Knoch and the Liu brothers, Shaolin Sandor and Shaoang.
Shaolin Sandor Liu and Csaba Burján during the ISU World Cup Short Track at the Olympic Oval, Calgary, 2018 © International Skating Union (ISU)
“Can I tell a funny story?” Burján laughs. “After the Olympics, we got invited into schools, children’s summer camps and stuff where we were introduced to the kids. But people in Hungary are so clueless about winter sports that one kid comes up to me, and asks, ‘Ah it’s so cool that you won a gold at the Winter Olympics. Are you thinking about entering the real Olympics now?’ He was just a sweet kid but they don’t even know that there is a Winter Olympics, never mind that it’s a big thing.”
In Hungary, the sporting universe is monopolized by football, basketball and handball. Traditionally, the only Olympic sports which attract any funding and media attention are summer sports such as swimming, canoeing and fencing, which return gold medals with metronomic consistency every four years.
Csaba Burjan celebrates victory following the Short Track Speed Skating Men's 5000m Relay at PyeongChang 2018 © Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
As a result, most of Hungary’s leading skaters discovered the sport more or less by accident. “My brother and I were doing swimming, and one day we decided we wanted to do something different when winter came and we looked at what options we had in Hungary,” Shaolin Sandor says. “We saw Short Track Speed Skating. We’d never heard of it, jumped in and gave it a go. I guess we were just lucky.”
With precious few Hungarian role models to look up to in the sport, and only a single competition-standard ice rink in the entire country, neither the Liu brothers nor Burján could even dream of global success while growing up. Even the idea of winning European medals seemed like a lofty target.
Viktor Knoch competes at PyeongChang 2018 © International Skating Union (ISU)
“When we started, there were two or three guys in the Men’s team, like Viktor, who had some good results,” Burján remembers. “But the best they did was European medals and World Junior medals, so, as kids, that was the level we wanted to reach back then.”
While many of the Hungarian skaters were talented athletes, the Hungarian National Skating Federation lacked the financial muscle to provide the high quality coaching which could take them to the very top. For many years this appeared unlikely to change, until the government launched a new program in 2012, providing increased funding to sports with Olympic medal potential.
Olympic gold medalists Shaoang Liu, Shaolin Sandor Liu, Viktor Knoch and Csaba Burjag, 2018 © Lars Baron/Getty Images
“Hungary is sadly very Olympic-centric and gold-centric, so before then anything less than Olympic gold wasn’t really enough to put you on the map,” Knoch explains. “There are summer sports which bring golds every four years, so you have to compete with them for attention. But luckily Short Track was selected for this new program and that gave us a chance of getting better.
“For the majority of my career, I didn’t train for an Olympic gold. It was not something that we could realistically achieve because we didn’t skate fast enough. Everything that you need to be able to achieve something like this, we didn’t have it. But with the funding, that changed.”
Shaoang Liu during the ISU World Cup Short Track Calgary, 2018 © International Skating Union (ISU)
Crucially the new windfall enabled the federation to appoint former Chinese skater Zhang Jing, known as Lina Zhang, as the national coach. She would prove instrumental in nurturing the talent of the Liu brothers, guiding them to individual World Championship medals and harnessing a belief in the Relay team that they could reach the podium at the Olympics.
This belief would be tested to the limit during the build-up to PyeongChang 2018, a season in which the team endured mishap after mishap.
“Apart from the Olympics, nothing went right that season,” Knoch laughs. “But nothing before and nothing after. We were still positive, though, that if things went right and we actually performed, we could reach the podium. We weren’t struggling because we were slow, it was because we were falling or making stupid mistakes.”
Shaoang Liu (left) and Shaolin Sandor Liu celebrate winning Olympic gold, 2018 © ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
As a result, even in the aftermath of their greatest success, the team have faced accusations from Hungarian sports fans that they only won because they were lucky. While their victory – Hungary’s first gold medal at an Olympic Winter Games – initially brought them honor and glory back home, with television appearances, a generous financial reward from the government and the promise of a lifelong pension, they now feel the pressure to keep the victories coming, to prove it was no fluke.
Burján explains that this inner drive perhaps contributed to their world-record performance in the 5000m Relay at the season’s opening ISU Short Track World Cup event in Calgary last week.
“Because we’re a small sport back home, we really have to maintain the results all the time to keep people aware of us,” he says. “People tend to forget what we did if we have a couple of bad races. So starting the season with the world record is pretty good because there are always some people who say we were lucky, so we have to show there is no luck here.”
The team have also seen some changes since PyeongChang. Knoch is currently not competing, having taken a year off from the sport to contemplate his future. In the meantime, he has been replaced by the Krueger brothers – Cole and John-Henry – who have switched nationality from USA to Hungary, adding yet more depth to the squad.
“What a weird time to be living, when the Americans come to Hungary to skate,” Knoch jokes. “Not the other way round. Ten years ago that never would have happened.”
With an even stronger team, the Hungarians are now eyeing further World Cup victories as well as Relay gold medals at the European and World Championships later in the season. If they can continue to achieve consistent success on the global stage, they hope that they can establish Short Track as a mainstream sport in Hungary.
Shaolin Sandor Liu, Calgary, 2018 © International Skating Union (ISU)
“We have more funding now and it’s already getting bigger due to our results,” Shaolin Sandor says. “When we started, we had maybe 100 skaters, including the Juniors. I don’t know how many official skaters we have now in Hungary but I think it’s way more. Sponsors are beginning to be interested in getting involved too – energy drinks companies, a phone company, people like that.”
Due to the increasing success of their skaters, the Hungarian federation has responded by launching the construction of a second international-standard ice rink, to be completed by 2022. As a result, the Liu brothers hope that by the time they hang up their skates for good, most Hungarian children will realize that the Winter Olympics, is a ‘real Olympics’.
“Hopefully it’ll be in the top three Olympic sports in Hungary, by the time we retire,” Shaolin Sandor says. “That would be pretty good. Obviously we can’t compete with football and handball because we just don’t have enough rinks. But hopefully more kids will at least consider choosing skating when they’re growing up, over swimming or other sports.”