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Budapest builds on the lessons from failed Olympic bid

  • The city is leveraging events to engage younger people, who were especially supportive of the 2024 Olympics bid
  • Budapest has focused on world championships of Olympic sports, having established strong links with international federations
  • Economic impact through tourism and infrastructure upgrades is a key driver of the bidding and hosting strategy

Reputations are rarely enhanced when an Olympic bid falters before entering the final straight. However, Budapest has been different.

Whilst the Hungarian capital’s backers could not hide their frustration and disappointment just over two years ago, when dreams of hosting the 2024 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games were dashed, there is little question that Budapest has leveraged the experience of the bidding contest to its advantage.

“There was a certain amount of regret that we were unsuccessful, of course, but we learned a lot,” says Balázs Fürjes, state secretary for the development of Budapest and major international sport events, who served as chairman of the Budapest 2024 Olympic bid. “We used the experience to help bid for other events and to increase our reputation in the sports scene.

“It has led to improved relationships with international federations, society in general and the media. It is crucial that we know our strengths and weaknesses – in particular, to be always mindful of and working on our weaknesses.”

Lessons

Although Budapest has no immediate plans to bid for a future edition of the Games, the influence of the Olympic movement still looms large in the city’s event-hosting landscape.

Two of the Games’ most high-profile international federations – Fina and the IAAF, representing aquatics and athletics respectively – have certainly put their faith in the Hungarian capital.

Within five months of the 2024 Olympic bid’s collapse, Fina had not only staged its 2017 World Championships in Budapest to great acclaim, but had also committed to a return to the city for its World Championships (25m) in 2024. In December last year, the IAAF announced that it would bring its showpiece biannual World Championships to Budapest in 2023.

World Championships in other Olympics sports such as judo, wrestling and table tennis have also taken place in the city since the plug was pulled on the 2024 Games bid in early 2017.

However, it is the arrival of the inaugural Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) World Urban Games later this year that is arguably the most significant strategic capture of all – especially in the context of the 2024 Budapest Olympics bid’s post mortem.

Outsider

Realistically, the city was always a rank outsider when it was left up against the juggernauts of Paris and Los Angeles in the race for the 2024 Olympics.

When more than 260,000 people signed a petition against the bid and backed investing the money that was due to be ploughed into the Games into “hospitals and schools” instead, vital political backing – which had kept the bid alive whilst the likes of Hamburg and Rome had earlier crashed out – wavered fatally.

However, the scale of public opposition was debatable. Those who added their names to the petition accounted for only about three per cent of the country’s population. Local polling figures collected three months before Budapest pulled out of the contest suggested public support for the 2024 Olympics bid had reached 63 per cent in the city – exactly the same percentage recorded by eventual Games host Paris in the International Olympic Committee’s Evaluation Report.

The Budapest poll, carried out by research agency Kód Kft. in December 2016, also found that whilst there was perhaps understandably greater scepticism from older, more conservative people, 71 per cent of 18-to-29 year-olds supported the bid. With this in mind, the GAISF World Urban Games is a significant attempt to build on this appetite.

Urban life

With sports such as 3×3 basketball, BMX freestyle, breakdancing, parkour and freestyle roller skating lined up for the inaugural Games, which will take place from September 13-15, the event provides Budapest with the opportunity to engage directly with the youth market.

Perhaps tellingly, although Budapest initially lost out to 2028 Olympics host Los Angeles for the World Urban Games, GAISF opted to move the event to the Hungarian city earlier this year after claiming its proposed sports programme was “more in line” with its vision. As a host city contract had not been signed with Los Angeles, GAISF was able to switch the event – and Budapest will have a chance to build on the momentum by also hosting the 2021 edition of the Games.

“We will look to use the Games to leverage the city and to appeal to the youth audience,” says Fürjes, who adds that the event will be the “Olympic-style party of the year, bringing people to sport and sport to people”.

Again, direct links with the Olympics are conspicuous, and not just in the language or the association with GAISF, an influential organisation within the movement. Both 3×3 basketball and BMX freestyle will make their Olympic debuts at the Tokyo 2020 Games, with breakdancing to follow in Paris 2024. For many, this year’s World Urban Games will provide a first look at these sports.

“Such sports, which may previously have been seen by some as subcultures, are now more widely accepted as urban sports,” Fürjes adds. “It is all about appealing to the youth and about education.

“How can we further educate everyone about the appeal of urban sports? What is parkour, for example? How can we bring sport to the people and people to sport? The exciting challenge is in getting this message across – and, as much as possible, prior to the September opening of the Games.”

Flexibility

Hosting the 2019 World Urban Games will not be the first time that Budapest has demonstrated its flexibility by stepping in at relatively short notice to stage a major event.

The 2017 Fina World Championships were arguably the largest sporting event Budapest has ever held. The fortnight-long event attracted some 500,000 spectators, with an additional 500,000 taking to the streets and sampling the city’s fan zones.

The city was actually scheduled to host the event in 2021, but this was brought forward in March 2015 after Guadalajara in Mexico withdrew amid funding concerns.

“Budapest said it would deliver and it did. Fina officials now say the 2017 championships were the best ever,” says Fürjes. “Moreover, that event served to renew other infrastructure in and around the city, all of which is now in wide use.”

Construction work on the new Duna Arena, the centrepiece for the event, was brought forward and accelerated so that the building project was delivered in less than two years, and Budapest’s efforts were rewarded.

According to professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the total anticipated income derived from the impact of the event from 2017 to 2022 is estimated to be $600m. The championships also contributed $300m towards Hungary’s GDP in 2017, the equivalent of 0.25 per cent. Some 16,500 jobs are thought to have been created through the event.

Statistics have shown that money spent by tourists in Budapest in 2017 was significantly higher than the year before. “With higher earners visiting Hungary and Budapest, this offers proof that sport can drive income to the city,” says Fürjes.

Picture-perfect

The opening ceremony for the event, which took place on the Duna Arena’s neighbouring River Danube, served to highlight Budapest’s aesthetic qualities, with high-diving events at the championships held on the river itself.

“It goes almost without saying that a hugely successful event such as Fina 2017 increases the awareness of Budapest,” says Fürjes. “Breathtaking photos of the high-dive event, for instance, staged immediately on the Danube River, across from the Hungarian Parliament Building, were published around the world.

“The cascading effect of such an event – the enhancing effect of not just being known as but, further, labelled as a reliable partner – can lead to the attraction of foreign investment into the city and country.”

Budapest is hoping that the use of major events to accelerate wider redevelopment, generating a positive economic impact, will be in evidence again in relation to the IAAF World Championships in 2023.

In looking forward to the event, which will take place at a new 40,000-seat National Athletics Centre before the capacity is reduced to 15,000 following the conclusion of the championships, Fürjes cites the London 2012 Olympics as a template.

“The development of the East London neighbourhood of Stratford in accordance with the 2012 Games can perhaps be thought of as a kind of benchmark, because that neighbourhood is now blossoming with housing, retail and possibility,” he says. “In Budapest, there is a similar possibility with an urban brownfield site just south of the traditional city centre turning green by 2023.”

In keeping with its compact approach, Budapest has planned for all hotels and competition venues for the event to be within a 15-minute travel time.

Promotion

Fürjes also describes the city as “uniquely affordable”, safe and photogenic; something that will be showcased when the Giro d’Italia arrives in Budapest next year.

As Active Hungary’s Government Commissary Máriusz Révész said when race organiser RCS announced in April that Budapest would stage the start of a Grand Tour cycling event for the first time: “The Giro is not only a sporting event but also a great promotion for the territory.”

Fürjes admits that, in some ways, Budapest is “still in search of recognition” and feels that “there could hardly be a better event” than the Giro to open people’s eyes to the city and its attractions.

Budapest is an increasingly popular tourist destination, thanks to landmarks such as the Parliament Building, quaint municipal parks, Christmas markets and music and cultural Sziget Festival, as well as the annual Formula One Grand Prix, which takes place in the city’s northern outskirts and has secured a place on the calendar until at least 2021.

In 2018, 31 million guest nights were registered across Hungary – a year-on-year increase of one million – while Budapest Airport plans to open a new terminal by 2024 to accommodate a rapid influx of foreign visitors following a double-digit rise in passenger numbers last year.

Placed in the heart of Europe, the Hungarian capital is relatively easy to access from most major cities on the continent. However, the city authority, which works hand-in-hand with the national government on event bidding, is exploring any opportunities to attract visitors from further afield as well.

The World Table Tennis Championships, which took place in the city in April, is a prime example, with the event’s huge Asian audience promoting Budapest to potential new visitors from the east.

The event was broadcast to 265 million viewers in 145 nations and attracted some 80.5 million YouTube views. The Championships also proved popular on social media, with 27.6 million Facebook impressions, 20 million Twitter impressions and 23.5 million Instagram impressions. In China alone, the event generated 50.4 million post views and 500 million impressions on social media website Weibo.

Strategic balance

The balance of world championships, youth-orientated competitions and events that are strategically aligned with Hungary’s broader tourism and investment goals, is no accident.

Viktor Orbán, who has been Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010, has been a powerful force behind bringing more events to the country and, in particular, its capital.

“Most events are funded by the government, which views sport as a strategic pillar for the country and society,” says Fürjes.

In a further boost to the city’s sporting infrastructure, and its appeal to visitors from across Europe, Budapest will host four matches at its new Ferenc Puskás Stadium during the Uefa Euro 2020 football tournament. The 68,000-seat venue is due to open later this year.

Budapest is likely to be a popular option for fans seeking to explore a new destination in a tournament that is taking place across 12 European cities.

Whilst nine of the host cities have been categorised as Cluster A locations by football’s European governing body Uefa, and will have ticket prices starting at €50 accordingly, Budapest – along with Baku and Bucharest – has been allocated to Cluster B, where ticket prices will start at just €30, offering a more affordable option.

For Fürjes, Euro 2020 is just the latest evidence of Budapest’s focus “on quality over quantity and attracting the biggest sport events in the Olympic movement and the world of sport”.

He adds: “The aim is to position Budapest as a global sports capital and to be known as a trusted, reliable host of major sport events. We keep on hearing that sport is something that is putting Budapest on the world map and making it known around the world. Budapest is not considered an underdog now, as it was in the Olympic race.”

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