Szeged ready to show why it's the home of Sprint Canoe

Pic by Balint Vekassy

For a city that considers itself to be the international home of sprint canoeing, the past two years have felt like an eternity.

Of course the criteria can be moulded to suit any argument, but on sheer weight of numbers Szeged in Hungary has every right to call itself the spiritual home of the sport.

After a two-year break, Szeged is back on the international calendar, hosting the second World Cup next month. Balint Vekassy, the instantly recognisable ICF photographer and one of the Szeged event organisers, said there is a nervous anticipation.

“The previous time Szeged had a "pause" this long in hosting international canoeing events was before 2005,” Vekassy said. 

“We are anxious to see if this will lead to canoeing fans of Szeged being super-hungry for some action, or have their fond memories of paddle battles at the Maty-er Regatta Course already started fading and they slowly turn away from us? 

“Of course I'm a strong believer it's the former.”

He has good reason to be optimistic. Sprint canoe is very much part of the sporting fabric of Hungary, and winning three gold medals in Rio last year has added to the legend.

And according to Vekassy, the sport’s beating heart can be found in Szeged.

“The people of Szeged consider their city to be the canoe sprint capital of the world,” he said. 

“They have a reason to feel so because they are aware that the number of spectators can not be matched anywhere else. They are proud of this and we are proud of this so it's a perfect combination of everybody getting something out of it. 

“And I think the athletes love it too that they can feel important and sense that people care what they do. Don't forget that most of them will not make it to the Olympic Games ever and we feel obliged to try to give them something closest to the Olympic feeling.”

2019 World Championships

These are not just words from Vekassy and his team. In 2019 Szeged will be hosting the World Championships, so next month will be an important trial run.

The last time they hosted the sport’s premiere event was 2011, and a lot has changed since then, especially when it comes to running a successful, and memorable, sporting event.

“Even for us organisers, shifting gears is necessary as the effort that was good enough a few years back might not be quite up to the level we expect of ourselves,” Vekassy said.

“The previous organising team that staged the 2011 World Championships is back together after six years of working at major international events of other sports, gaining experience and new impulses. 

“Our eyes are on the 2019 World Championships where we'd like to present something that our sport has never seen before. Until then we have two World Cups to run where we are going to test a few things in preparation for the big one.”

Its a fair measure of the standing of sprint canoe in Hungary that there are mixed feelings about the Rio results among locals. Obviously winning three gold medals, with Hungarian superstar Danuta Kozak involved in all of them, is enormously satisfying.

But in Hungary, which has come to rely so heavily on sprint canoe to boost its overall medal tally, the question is always, “how do we get even better”.

“Rio turned out to be a success for us with three golds, although we are not that pleased with our overall results,” Vekassy said. 

“Of course the public eye has a different perspective, but we always see ways to improve. Being the most decorated sports from the Olympic Games in the last 20 years in Hungary, we know that nothing is good enough for us and some of our results are taken for granted, which is not a very comfortable position to be in. 

“Along with swimming and fencing we are the triumvirate responsible for the well-being of our sports-loving people. We'll never beat football at popularity so we try to make it up by actually bringing medals home.”

A proud history

If you ask Balint Vekassy why it is that Hungary is so good at sprint canoe, he shrugs his shoulders. It’s a question he and his colleagues get asked a lot, and the answer isn’t obvious.

He thinks attitude plays an important part, especially the aforementioned feeling that no effort is ever good enough, no matter how many gold medals or world titles the country wins.

And the coaches also are integral to the continued growth of the sport.

“Heritage and long history must be part of the success. You can't quite put your hands on it, but it's in the heads and hearts of our coaches who pass this along, almost unknowingly, on a daily basis during training sessions,” he said. 

“Hard work must be mentioned too, obviously, but I think that's heritage itself; you'll not get anywhere if you don't do all the training to the best of your abilities. Or a little better. 

“No matter what the weather is like, how hard the circumstances are, you can be someone here if you put your back into it.”

So what of next month’s World Cup in Szeged? Early signs are extremely positive, with around 800 athletes from more than 60 countries having already registered - possibly a World Cup record.

It’s certainly going to be jam-packed. Along with a full card of able-bodied and Paracanoe events, organisers are also going to be cramming a new event into the three-day program.

“I'd like to mention the experimental mixed relay event which is going to be held for the very first time ever on Sunday afternoon, instead of the 5000m races,” Vekassy said. 

“It is something that the ICF canoe sprint committee had conceived and I think it's going to be a sight to see, how boys and girls are making their laps on a 500-meter long circuit.”

The ICF Canoe Sprint and Paracanoe World Cup begins at Szeged on Friday, May 26.

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