LAUSANNE, August 25, 2010 - Hungarian President Pal Schmitt, an Olympic Gold medallist and member of the IOC has some very firm opinions on how young athletes should behave on the podium. Schmitt, who attended the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore has urged IOC President to stamp out displays of nationalism at future Youth Olympic Games. He also believes that the young athletes should not be compensated financially. As President of Hungary, Schmitt hopes to instill an awareness in his compatriots that staying healthy through sport and physical activity shoudl be a top priority.
Schmitt was elected to the presidency of the Hungarian parliament in a landslide in June. He served as president of the World Olympians Association from 1999-2007, and was Hungarian Ambassador to Spain (1993-1997) and Switzerland (1999-2003) and has been has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004.
As an Olympian on the Hungarian epee fencing team the 68-year-old won two Olympic gold medals in 1968 in Mexico City and Munich in 1972 and participated in Montreal in 1976.
He started his career as a sports official in 1981 and was elected a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1983 and six years later became president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee.
AIPS President Gianni Merlo caught up with President Schmitt in Singapore for this interview:
You were a top athlete, now you are the top man in your country. Being a the President of a nation is a dream for most people, how do you feel about it?
To be elected to be a president of a country or a republic you have to be a well-known personality with the background either from politics or society. You have to have the people’s trust. There are two ways to be President: one is to be elected by the people or to be elected by the Parliament, which was my case in Hungary. To be elected by the people gives you a bit more legitimacy I must confess. But you know, the people give their power to the Parliament so it’s more or less the same. I was elected with a very high majority of 68% of the parliament and I was elected immediately after the first round as a President.
How has your election helped Hungarian sport?
Everybody knows I was a sportsman. My background is an Olympian and I have been a member of the IOC for 27 years and President of the Hungarian Olympic Committee for 21 years, so my background comes from sport not politics. It was my 60th birthday when I decided to go into politics. Before then I was a normal citizen like you. Politics was never that important for me but is extremely important for me is that civil
societies, education, healthy lifestyle, and culture are a priority for everyone. People know that the education of people is my favourite hobby horse. That is through sports, schools and universities.
How has your background in sport helped you?
It helps in certain qualities. First of all I never feel tired - even if am tired I don’t confess. And then I can pay attention perhaps longer than the average person at any kind of conferences.
Then there are rules. For example, even when you lose or win you must shake hands and appreciate your partner. Don’t treat anybody as your enemy, rather a sporting rival. There is also the physical aspect and the kind of self confidence that you can gain from sport. Then there is discipline - you have the tolerance against monotony. These aspects help me a lot.
Has being the President of a nation, a man with a sporting background, changed your outlook on sport?
I have to safeguard the democracy in my country and represent every single person in the nation. This is the duty of a president. But apart from this you can have your own mission. I have three self-made missions for my people. One is to safeguard the Hungarian language. The way the young people are using it on SMS and watching TV constantly, or they are in a noisy area where they cannot hold a conversation the language is in danger. This applies also to Italian, French or Spanish. First all we have to protect our real asset in our hand if we want to declare ourselves a nation, and that is the mother tongue.
The second priority for me is to give everyone a chance to have a healthy lifestyle - maybe this can ben achieved through sport and physical activities - twice a week as a minimum. As President I will go to small and large competitions and my presence will give them a higher profile. I will encourage physical educators and universities to hold competitions where I will show up. If the President appears they have the feeling that it is a big occasion, because the President is there.
Currently in Europe 30% of the people engage in some form of activity, while 70% do no sport, it is a social problem everywhere. This causes obesity and the kinds of problem associated with it such as lazy lifestyles.
So as an Olympian I will promote sport, not top level, just something to give people an idea of what to follow. Am trying to promote a healthy lifestyle in Hungary. Let us move our body and lead healthy lifestyles.
If there is no physical exercise at the school level which is the very beginning, you have no healthy lifestyle. It is where you teach children to be familiar with their healthy lifestyle and enjoy their life in sport. More clubs will open up and Federations should put emphasis not only to be good internationally but also to be good through the wider involvement of sport in their locality.
My third target is education. The world is a competitive society. Everyone wants to take part in the competition and those who are not well educated will end up being last. I have to look at the system of education and set aside more money towards innovation. I believe that those countries who don’t have natural resources should work especially towards a knowledge-based society. I want the Hungarian society to be competitive and learn lifelong things. I am also setting an example by learning the Greek language, learning how to play the flute, and doing my exercises. So every week I must have one lesson in music and one in language, even if am 68!
Is the Hungarian government investing in sport?
We consider ourselves a sporty nation because we have posted good results at the Olympic level. Hungary was well known as a country of champions. But only 13% of the whole population engage in sport, so I want to ensure that a minimum of 20-30 % should engage in sport, then we can say we are a sporty nation. Champions are good role models to follow.
How is the relationship with the sports journalists in your country?
My basic philosophy is that the media is your partner whether you are an artist, sportsman, sports leader, or philosopher. Whoever you are, the media replicates you millions of times. There are a hundred people in a table tennis contest but a million people view it and when you are the winner, television for example spreads this to many millions more. The media for me was and is extremely important because I spent more than half of my life in sport. I realise that sports media belongs to my family. So whenever the Hungarian team was going for to an Olympic Games I asked the media to wear the same uniform. They received the same equipment from our kit sponsors and I made a special briefing for them just to create the team spirit. So your participation is extremely important. I understand that the stars are important but for me it is the people. But you cannot do without the other.
I value and appreciate the work that AIPS is doing because it is extremely important. Sooner or later the leaders of clubs, NOCS’s and Federations will learn that the best thing is to have the media on their side and to have them as partners - that is my philosophy.
What do you think about this idea of the Youth Olympic Games?
It’s a very good idea, we need young heroes and young examples to follow. I had a personal conversation with Jacques Rogge and told him he should make some important decisions – for instance don’t encourage the competitors to be too nationalistic, so I suggest that they do not take the national flag to the podium. The flag is already there, when you hear your national anthem, on your accreditation, so don’t exaggerate that this is national rivalry, it’s not! Bringing people together is extremely important. So I asked him to forbid this thing. Another thing – there should be no prize money for a single athlete, just scholarships for studies or financial recognition to the school where the athlete is studying. I have decided with the Prime Minister that no money will be given to the Hungarian gold medallists but some moral and financial recognition to the school where he or she is studying. But with 204 nations here it is already a success. Once the games are over I will write all my observations and share them with IOC president Jacques Rogge.