Stories from Tatabánya

Ceremony in Tatabanya
Veres Győző Weightlifting Hall

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be guest of honor at a celebration at one of Hungary’s most successful weightlifting clubs, Tatabanya. This is the club that produced the legendary Foldi Imre, who completed at five Olympic games, winning medals at three. The celebration was to honor the 60th anniversary of the club, and to dedicate the training hall to the man who built it, Veres Győző. The testimonials left no doubt that the man who was single handedly responsible for the success of the club was Hungary’s first world champion, Veres Győző. It was he who drove the lifters with his incomprehensible will to achieve their best. It was he who trained them with his incomparable genius to be champions of the world.

But wherever there is Veres Győző, there is a fight. There are stories of his battles against the corrupt officials of the federation, against the small minded pettiness that dominates so much of our world.

We heard an amazing story of just how deeply his idealism drove him into trouble with the communist party itself. Before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, there was a parade of Hungarian athletes before some of the central party members in Hungary. The head of the central committee, absolute leader of the communist party who was answerable directly to the goons in Moscow, came over to my father and forcibly stuck his finger in his chest with words to the effect: “we don’t fight with everyone all the time, Mr. Veres”. Then he turned around and walked off without any attention to any other athlete. I think he was trying to make a point.

I have a profound sense of sadness at the loss of such a truly heroic man. I know it is a cliche, but I feel that I did not really know my father until after his death. Until after I traveled to the country where he was once so great, and met the people who knew and loved him when he was great. They loved him for his pure, brave and un relenting spirit. I imagine that no one in Australia ever really knew him either, since he was so quickly ushered into obscurity there.

It is a personal tragedy that I did not know THIS man. All I knew was a disillusioned, defeated immigrant who clung onto his pride by working 12 hour days as a world champion car cleaner in a cold, dingy washing bay at the back of a car dealership in Moorabbin. It is a tragedy that I benefited so little from his coaching genius as a young lifter, pushing around rusty old weights in our back yard. I would start training in the afternoon, and my father would come in to watch me briefly over a bottle of beer before going back to his car cleaning workshop next door. He had so little time for me, as he slaved late into the evening. Once I moved to training at my school and then University, he never had the time to come and watch me train again.

But to claim this story entirely for myself, as a personal tragedy, would be selfish. It would be disrespectful to the generations of talented Australian weightlifters who were also deprived of the genius of this man: a man remembered by the International Weightlifting Federation as one who “laid the foundations of modern weightlifting”, whom the “weightlifting community considered … in his time as the most influential figure on the international stage”. What a waste of young lives, a waste of a great and rare opportunity to achieve glory once again in an obscure land. How can any of us rest in peace now?


Return from Budapest

Service at St. Stephen Basilica
Young weightlifters honor a legend

The funeral was a memorable affair. Dedications from those who remembered how great a man my father was. Sadly, some who knew this more than I. Here are some things I learned.

Veres Győző

Stories from Budapest

The inscription on his gravestone says: Veres Győző, Olympian, First Hungarian World Champion.

Many remembered Veres Győző here in this forum as a humble and thoughtful man, which he was. But as a younger lad he was also a brilliant and fierce man who did not suffer fools gladly. For this he was constantly at odds with the communist backed sporting establishment in his beloved Hungary. The day after his death, on February 2, one Hungarian newspaper wrote a story that ended like this: “.. with whom will he fight his battles up above, where all things are easy – I do not know”.

Nemessany Arpad, his closest friend and many times world junior record holder, told me a story about an axe he used to carry under the front seat of his car. It was this axe that my father used many many years ago in communist Hungary, to hammer the gates of the police station in his birth town, in the middle of one night. You see, the house was once Győző’s family home, but because it was the biggest and most central house in the town, it was simply taken by the communists and converted into a police station. In the middle of the night one night, the newly crowned world champion decided to vent his frustration by beating down the gate with an axe! Such was his fame and influence in those times that the feared communist authorities did not disturb him.

Győző became a hero in the small vanquished country that is Hungary after he trained himself to win the Olympic bronze medal in Rome 1960, in the then obscure sport of weightlifting. Within a few years he became world champion, and he also coached the Hungrian team to become the second strongest team in the world! At the funeral he was remembered in a speech by the head of the Hungarian Olympic Federation for his achievement in making his small country into such a powerful force. “In a time when Hungary was known as a sporting nation, Veres lead like a beacon ….”

Unfortunately in the 1960’s Hungary was not entirely filled with well wishing, freedom loving people. At the head of it all stood the corrupt, totalitarian communist state. The supreme success of a single man above the control of the party was not tolerated, and soon he started battling the officials who took control from him. Veres had an iron will that could not be bought … so it must be broken, but in a way that was not too public or brutal.

There was not much chance of toppling Veres Győző in the early days. In 1961 he won silver at the worlds, in ’62 an ’63 he won gold. But In ’64 disaster struck when he only took bronze. The following year in 1965 the powers that be had their chance at striking the weakened gladiator, which they did through his best friend Nemessany. The selectors decided that Nemessany was not fit to compete in the World Championships in Teheran that year. My father became enraged because he knew this was a fabrication, and he said to them that if they did not take Nemessany, then he would not go either. Of course he handed them a golden opportunity to publicly humiliate him by refusing to go. They spread rumors that he was finished as a lifter, that he was afraid to return after the ’64 failure, and so on. True to his word, Veres Győző did not go to Teheran. But he did organize a competition at home to coincide with the world championships, and he easily beat the winning result at Teheran.

The following year at the 1966 world championships in East Berlin, the authorities did not take any chances. In a despicable act which was later documented in newspapers, the Hungarians paid off the judges to give Veres a red light for his world record winning lift. After the event, the gold medal winner Vladimir Belyayev reportedly stated in a newspaper article that the gold was around his neck, but the world champion was Veres Győző.

Even if we are being conservative we can say that if he had simply been left to do his job, Veres Győző would be four times world champion, with 25 – 30 world records to his name. (He now has 18 – 21 depending on who is counting). But if we were in a generous mood and took my father’s own reckoning of what he could have achieved without the bitter battles, then we are counting six world and two Olympic gold medals. That would have been beyond phenomenal. But it was not to be. In the end, he was forced to leave his country, not so much because of the escalating bitterness in his own sporting career, but because of the way it was effecting his family. It was starting to become clear that the opportunities for his two sons were going to become more limited as the situation between my father and the party deteriorated, especially with his weightlifting career and legend in decline after he stopped competing in 1970.

It thus came to be that he left his homeland with a heavy heart, and took up Les Martyn’s generous and visionary invitation to establish a world class weightlifting fraternity in Australia, away from the pettiness and corruption which consumed and threatened to destroy the genius of Veres Győző. Of course this turned out to be an illusion. What we found in Australia was still another story

What I have come to finally realize is that my father was not like the rest of us. He achieved magnificent, unimaginable things, but he did not do these from selfish motives. At his peak, he sacrificed glory after glory for what he knew was the right thing to do. It would have been so easy for him if he was simply willing to set aside his pride and his dignity and start lying and stealing like everyone else around him. Veres Győző died in the lucky country with a thousand dollars to his name, and a bunch of medals in a plastic shopping bag.

Off to Budapest

Tomorrow the day finally comes. Off to Budapest, to bring my father to his final resting place. He was a hero for the Hungarian people, and he will be honored in a huge ceremony at St. Istvan (Stephen) Basilica.

We moved to Australia 36 years ago, where my father was treated very poorly as told in the linked article. Finally he will return to his home. He will be laid to rest in one of the chambers.

We are very anxious, especially my poor mother.