Hungarians have long excelled at sports. Their triumphs have been beyond all proportion to their size as a relatively small nation. Most famously the Hungarian national football team, known as the Magic Magyars, was the best in the world for much of the 1950’s. Hungarian football teams managed to finish as runner-up in both the 1938 and 1954 World Cup competitions. At the Summer Olympic games, Hungary has long punched up above its weight. The nation ranks ninth overall in the all-time tables with a total of 491 medals. This includes 175 gold medals. Only Finland has won more medals based on their per capita population. Hungary is the top medal winner among countries that have never hosted an Olympics. Almost one-fifth of the medals won by Hungarians have come in fencing, a sport they have helped dominate in the Olympics along with France and Italy.
Hungary ranks first all-time in medals won in the Modern Pentathlon and water polo events as well. The latter is one of the most popular sports in the nation. The Hungarian national water polo team has won the gold medal in eight of the past twenty-one Olympic Water Polo competitions and placed in second another three times. No other nation comes close to such numbers. One unique record also held by Hungarians is that the nation spawned the only father and son duo to win gold medals. The two men who achieved this were also world record holders in their respective sports. Yet for all their success, the son found it difficult to live up the standard set by his father until one magic moment in Montreal changed everything.
Great Expectations – Like Father, Unlike Son
Miklos Nemeth grew up in the shadow of sporting greatness. When he was just a year old, his father Imre won a gold medal at the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in the hammer throw. Thus young Miklos could never remember a time when his father was not an Olympic champion. Like father, like son or so it was hoped when Miklos began to excel at sports. There was immense pressure on Miklos to live up to his father’s achievements. His father hoped he would also become a hammer thrower, but the son instead took to the javelin. He was a prodigy right from the start. By the age of twenty he had thrown 87.42 meters in competition, which was only four meters less than the world record at the time. Great things were predicted for Milos, especially in the world’s most important competition, the Summer Olympic Games.
Nemeth first competed at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Unfortunately his form was badly off as he was dealing with an elbow injury at the time. The best throw he could muster was 75.50 meters, nowhere near good enough to qualify for the final round. He finished a miserable seventeenth in the qualifying round. His performance at those Olympics signaled a worrying trend of poor performances in the biggest events. This would reoccur throughout the early and middle parts of his career. In three different European Championships, Nemeth placed no higher than fifth. At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich he did qualify for the final round only to fall short once again, this time placing seventh. Though still relatively young, at twenty-six years old, it seemed that Nemeth would never fulfill his vast potential nor live up to the golden standard set by his father. The pressure of having a gold medal winning father in a small nation was more than Nemeth could handle at times. He grew frustrated by the lofty expectations placed upon him. At one point he remarked, “It is not an easy thing in my country to be the son of an Olympic Champion.” Critics thought he was looking for an excuse to explain away his poor performances. The consensus among the media was that nerves were to blame. Nemeth could not handle the pressure.
Delayed Gratification – The Winner Takes It All
In 1976 Nemeth qualified for his third Olympic Games, this time held in Montreal. Most athletes would have been ecstatic over such an achievement, but Nemeth knew that he was still judged by the fact that he was the son of Olympic star Imre Nemeth. This time though, the pressure was largely off. Miklos Nemeth was not considered one of the favorites. His results had been pretty good leading up to the Olympics, but he had been written off as a choker. He finished second in his qualifying group, but this did little to raise expectations. Surely Nemeth would find a way to finish in the lower echelons of the final. No one, not even Nemeth himself could have imagined that he would wipe out a decade of failures in just one moment, but that is exactly what happened. On his very first attempt Nemeth let loose with a tremendous throw. As it flew through the air, he turned away, but could not help himself and turned to look back.
The javelin landed 94.58 meters (310 feet & 4 inches). No javelin had ever been thrown that far. To do it on the first throw, in the most important and pressure packed competition was incredible. Nemeth had suddenly and abruptly silenced all of the critics who had doubted him. His competitors were demoralized. No one came close to matching Nemeth’s throw. The second place throw was a full six and a half meters behind Nemeth’s. His winning margin was the largest in the history of the Olympic javelin throw. It was an amazing feat that not only won Nemeth a coveted gold medal, but would have been good enough to win the next two Olympic javelin throw competitions as well. The record breaking throw also meant he was now part of the only father-son duo to win gold medals at the Olympic Games. In many ways Miklos Nemeth’s achievement was much greater than that of his father’s. He had lived up to the highest of expectations, overcoming unrelenting pressure that had mounted over many years. After winning the gold medal he was now the favored son, of not only his father, but also Hungary.