A Totally Accurate Retelling of Hungary's Incredible Night
I’m writing this piece having done no research, no fact-checking, no anything – sort of like a presidential debate – because I want to try and capture the raw emotion and joy around celebrating sport and, specifically, what we witnessed last night at the Olympics. I hope you enjoy it.
It was a bitterly cold February night in Grand Rapids, somewhere in the vicinity of negative 30 degrees fahrenheit. It had been a long week, the kind where 4 days feels like 12. Kendahl and I sat on the couch, fatigued after classes, work, and trying to fight off the seasonal aches and coughs that seem inevitable this time of year. We had the Olympics on, partially because Kendahl loves women’s figure skating and partially because, well, it’s almost over and it only happens every two years.
Out of nowhere, it seemed, speed skating was on, the short version relay (this, I believe, is the official event title). I spent the first 20 seconds wondering where Apollo was, but then I remembered he only does commercials now but still loves gold. The next 8 seconds was spent by me yelling “HUNGARY IS IN THIS!!!” to Kendahl and her reminding me she was only three feet away from me. My only knowledge of Hungary in the Winter Olympics was the skier (who is actually from the United States) who somehow found a way to make it to the Olympics in the halfpipe event without doing any tricks. As you watch the video of it, you take on equal parts frustration and awe. How in the world did this person become an Olympian?! From what I hear, she went to competitions that had a smaller number of competitors, racked up enough of those finishes, and qualified. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
The announcers were commenting on how Hungary, in its national history, has ZERO gold medals in the Winter Olympics. Hungary is competing with China, Canada, and South Korea in this relay. I asked Kendahl, and then the TV, if this is the final race. Neither answered. That is one thing I have never understood about the Olympics. I never know when the end is coming. There’s no FINAL RACE or GOLD MEDAL RELAY signage on the screen. How hard could that be?! I spend the next 20 seconds frustrated about this reality. It’s 2018, for crying out loud. (I will be writing the rest of this piece in present tense, so as to pull you, dear reader, into the moment with me.)
South Korea has a bad exchange and the skater is violently launched into the boards like it’s a hockey match. Someone from the stands throws a rotten banana peel at the skater; it's tough out there. There are 20 laps to go out of a total of 44. One announcer asks the other if Korea has enough time to come back into medal contention. The other announcer dismisses the question immediately, acting like the question itself is so preposterous that anyone who would even think to ask it should not be considered employable in this country. Olympic announcers are brutal, but that’s another conversation for another time. Hungary is almost surely guaranteed a medal now.
There are 10 laps to go. Kendahl and I are still in a bit of a daze from our tiredness. (we aren’t drinking or smoking; we’re just tired. Adult life is HARD!) Hungary seems glued to the third place slot; China and Canada are leading. They look superior. You can see their muscles bulging out of their skating suits from our 24-inch screen, they’re that big. Hungary falls a couple of body lengths behind. The announcers, of course, take quick note of this. It seems it would be totally understandable to play it safe and get your country a medal.
7 laps to go. Hungary is still in third, but they look to have closed some of the gap. It’s tight now.
6-5 laps to go. I don't totally remember what happens during this stretch. Maybe I was checking my phone. They're skating FAST.
4 laps to go. The second place skater has overtaken the first place skater, but Hungary remains in third.
3 laps to go. Hungary. Makes. A. Move.
2 laps to go. Hungary is in second. Kendahl and I are both standing on our feet.
1.5 laps to go. Hungary shoots forward, as if propelled by the benefit of a nitro boost, into first place. We’re still standing, obviously.
1 lap to go. Hungary makes the final turns. The announcers try, quickly, to put it into perspective. All Hungary needs to do is hold on.
The finish. The second place skater reaches out his foot, but it isn’t enough. Hungary has won the gold medal, the first Winter Olympic gold medal in the history of the country.
The announcers are talking about how history has been made. My hands are straight up in the air, and I’m not sure how or when they got there. Kendahl is standing in front of me, but I can see her smiling – an incredulous smile. Neither of us thought we’d be able to witness something like this, not tonight, not this Olympics, not this country.
The USA is our home, and we root for them in the Olympics for sure. The Shaun White halfpipe gold was an incredible moment, especially given what that dude has been through. Watching Lindsey Vonn get emotional about the loss of her grandfather and contemplating the end of her career was, likewise, meaningful, vulnerable, and amazing to watch. I don’t mean any of this to take anything away from them or what this country has accomplished. But there was something uniquely satisfying about watching a Hungarian team defy the odds and win this race tonight.
Hungary, the country that fought on the wrong side of 2 world wars and lost more kids than any other country to death camps.
Hungary, the country that has been occupied for a solid chunk of its thousand-year existence.
Hungary, a country that is strife with corruption and development issues and where public school teachers and nurses and doctors regularly protest in Szabadság tér and outside the Parliament for better wages, better treatment, and a better life.
Indeed, there is something uniquely satisfying about watching an underdog claim a victory and what it represents.
Hungary made history tonight.
And I’m so glad I was able to see it.