Budapest rocks: its big win for the World Urban Games

Roughly 18 months ago the International Olympic Committee made a historical double allocation for the Summer Games, Paris for 2024, Los Angeles getting 2028. 

LA and Paris were the last two left in what had originally been a race only for 2024. Budapest withdrew earlier in 2017 amid local political complexities, clearing the way for the IOC’s 2024/2028 double-double, and ever since those in the know have wondered, because Budapest rocks: what if? 

On Monday, it was announced that the 2019 World Urban Games, which last fall were said to be going to Los Angeles, would instead be held in — Budapest. When? September 13-15. GAISF, the umbrella organization that represents international sports federations, said Budapest had also been offered the 2021 edition of the Urban Games, touting “both the city’s enthusiasm and its readiness and capability.”  

The project is likely to feature 3x3 basketball and BMX freestyle, both of which will be on the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games program, as well as breakdancing, the hit of the 2018 Youth Games in Buenos Aires that probably will be featured at Paris 2024, along with a full program of music, art and street-inspired culture.

Monday’s announcement resolves a drama that for months has been playing out behind the scenes. Big picture, first and foremost, it must be understood for what it is, a huge victory — another, that is — for Budapest, for Hungary and for Balázs Fürjes, state secretary for the development of Budapest and major sports events. He resolutely continued to press the case on behalf of his city and nation. Now all three — him, city, country — are big winners. OK, for emphasis, because it’s appropriate: really big winners. 

American Ginger Huber in front of the Hungarian parliament during the women's 20-meter high dive final during the 2017 FINA worlds

American Ginger Huber in front of the Hungarian parliament during the women's 20-meter high dive final during the 2017 FINA worlds

At the same time, this matter reflects the emergence and convergence of a number of significant dynamics, all holding considerable import for the Olympic landscape now and in the near future. There are a lot — a lot — of moving pieces.

Some 50 cities were interested originally in WUG, according to GAISF. Among them: Barcelona, Tokyo, LA and Budapest. 

In December, track and field’s international governing body, the IAAF, announced it had awarded its 2023 world championships to Budapest. Authorities plan to build a new stadium on the eastern bank of the Danube River on the city’s south side, with a capacity of 40,000 for 2023; that will be reduced for future events to 15,000.

Now, just three months later, GAISF has said Budapest it is for WUG for 2019 and 2021 — proof not only that Budapest is a top player in Europe and in traditional sports such as track and field and swimming but understands the markers laid down last October at those Buenos Aires Youth Games, the changes (see breakdancing) increasingly shaping the international and Olympic sports movement. 

In the summer of 2017, Budapest staged the FINA world aquatics championships. Two years before, it had stepped in as host, earning abundant goodwill, when Guadalajara, Mexico, withdrew. At the time, Budapest did not even have an arena. Most would have said, no way. Fürjes said, this can be done, and indeed: Duna Arena got built, the pool proved super-fast and it is now widely recognized that the 2017 FINA worlds were that federation’s best-ever, athletes and fans traveling to and from the arena — up and back on the Danube — on boats liberally stocked with champagne. 

For real.

The IJF world judo championships took place in Budapest a few weeks after the swim worlds. They, too, were exceptionally organized.

Same for the UWW wrestling world championships last October. 

In Budapest, meanwhile, Fürjes recently had drawn some criticism — there’s always something — for coming home in December with the 2023 track worlds via a new IAAF system that saw the federation target a would-be city and then engage in constructive pre-award dialogue. The IAAF undertook this new way instead of the traditional “bid” system that saw one “winner” and x number of “losers” — in truth, the IOC would ultimately end up awarding 2024 and 2028 in a similar fashion.

In any event, the criticism back home was that in winning for 2023, Budapest had done so without competition.

Now, in regard to WUG for 2019 and 2023, Fürjes and Budapest can say — look, if at first it looked like we didn’t come out on top, in the end, we did. We won.

Which leads to the next big-picture part of the story.

For the inaugural WUG, it got down to two, Los Angeles and Budapest. 

The Hungarian government last fall committed $11 million to the project. To reiterate: the state, and $11 million.

Nonetheless, last Nov. 5, GAISF said it was going to LA for 2019 and 2021.

LA, however, was not in any way the city of Los Angeles. 

Nor was this Hollywood — that, at least, the real Hollywood, would seriously be urban.

This was the little town of El Segundo. Just north, across Imperial Highway and Interstate 105, sits LAX airport. Immediately to the west there’s an enormous wastewater treatment facility that processes 81 percent of the city of Los Angeles’ sewage. On El Segundo’s south side sits a massive oil refinery. 

A midwestern-style downtown features a main street. It’s called Main Street. As locals know, and as the magazine Wired has dutifully reported, the rivalry in the NBC television series Parks and Recreation between the fictional towns of Pawnee and Eagleton is, as the magazine put it, a “dead ringer for the age-old resentments that have long boiled between the small, Mayberry-esque El Segundo and its wealthier neighbor to the south, Manhattan Beach.” 

In looking to achieve urban, Mayberry is not, you know, that vibe. 

The sewage plant? The refinery? For sure urban. But wrong vibe.

The LA Times recently relocated from downtown LA to El Segundo, to a building overlooking the 105 and LAX. The new owner of the LA Times is biomedical entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong. He is said to have a keen interest in esports. 

Patrick Baumann, the senior FIBA international basketball and IOC executive, had a strong interest in esports. As the LA Times reported, Soon-Shiong, along with Baumann and Rick Fox, the former LA Laker who moderated an esports forum last July at the IOC museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, “bonded over a love of basketball and esports.”

As this column has noted many times, the Olympic world in its news releases speaks in code. 

The GAISF release from last November is a prime example: “The Games send a clear signal that GAISF remains determined to provide a global showcase for member federations whose sports — or their derivatives — require additional critical mass to gain public and media attention.”

Translation: esports.

The El Segundo concept, as the Times also reported last November, would have included a venue for esports competitions. The newspaper: “Plans include building an urban park in El Segundo before September.”

So: was this really about sports?

Or a real estate play? 

Further: was this a case of the classic European criticism of a rich American seemingly knowing little to nothing about the Olympic landscape suddenly getting really interested — by seeking to leverage sports stuff just to make money?


Baumann died unexpectedly in October, at age 51.

A World Urban Games in El Segundo in September 2019? Had anyone bothered to check the calendar and the geography, much less the political ramifications? 

Starting October 9, 2019, meaning the month after a World Urban Games in El Segundo, and about 120 miles south, in San Diego, the Assn. of National Olympic Committees was due to put on its inaugural World Beach Games — 1,300 athletes, 15 sports, six days.

He might have his well-publicized legal issues but no one can doubt the influence around ANOC, indeed around Olympic sport, of Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait. To that end: despite being, as Reuters described it, “embroiled in a forgery case” brought by Swiss prosecutors, the sheikh — long an ally of IOC president Thomas Bach — was, over the weekend, re-elected unanimously as president of the Olympic Council of Asia at that group’s assembly in Bangkok. The sheikh had stood unopposed. The election was unanimous. It’s his eighth term.

Consider, too, this:

The deafening silence from LA28 about the prospect of a World Urban Games in “LA” — not one word from the organizing committee welcoming the advent of another multisport competition to Southern California. 

Back to the $11 million put up by the Hungarian government.

As a reminder, that GAISF news release touting LA/El Segundo was issued last Nov. 5.

On Nov. 9, speaking at the 47th general assembly of the European Olympic Committees in Marbella, Spain, Bach spoke of the need to protect what is called the “European sport model.” Another reminder: the United States is the only country in which the federal government does not underwrite Olympic sport. 

“Our European sport model is based on solidarity, inclusivity and millions of volunteers across our continent,” Bach said. “Our European sport model is under pressure if not under threat. The value of an organization, of an activity, is no longer determined by the contribution to society but just on money and markets. We are entering into serious problems as this purely market approach ignores the societal contribution sport has all over Europe … we have to start defending our European sport model. It is not only about our own interests. It is in the interest of European society.”

Added EOC president Janez Kocijančič of Slovenia:

“…Our model is based on values and youth — a healthy spirit and healthy body. If you let through only the market and money values, you endanger our model. We should speak quite openly about the social inclusivity of sport and the dangers of the neoliberal approach where everything is based on money.”

Now to Monday’s GAISF release, which says that last November GAISF “began discussions with Los Angeles for a 2019 edition, however after much deliberation it was decided that Budapest’s proposed sports programme was more in line with GAISF’s vision for the future of the Games.”

In Europe, they like their British English spellings. Anyway, let’s decode:

“I would also like to thank Balázs Fürjes, who has already proved his outstanding leadership capabilities in the Budapest 2024 bid and the successful staging of the FINA 2017 World Championships,” GAISF president Raffaele Chiulli said in that release. “Without his dedication, his belief in youth engagement and his creative approach, we would not have reached an agreement so quickly. I am looking forward to seeing the development of the Games in the coming months.”

Along the Danube during the 2017 FINA opening ceremony // Getty Images

Along the Danube during the 2017 FINA opening ceremony // Getty Images

Budapest, through Fürjes’ “outstanding leadership capabilities” and that “creative approach,” never gave up. It insisted it still wanted to host. It said it was better qualified. 

Budapest is compact. During the FINA 2017 championships, you could hear the roar literally all across the city from Margaret Island, in the middle of the Danube, especially but not only when the Hungarian water polo team was playing. 

Budapest is crawling with young people, especially at night and on weekends.

Budapest is beautiful. Photos from the high-dive event, in front of the Parliament building, evoke the famous skyline diving photos from Barcelona in 1992. 

Further, Hungary is sports-crazy. It has more Olympic medals, 498, than any other existing nation that has never hosted the Games and — this is a crazy stat — has the second highest all-time number of gold medals per capita of any nation, behind only Finland. (The United States, for comparison, is 39th.)

In Buenos Aires, in an unofficial nations medals count, Hungarian athletes finished fourth, with 12. Americans? Six. Overall? Hungary 24, U.S. 18. 

Further decoding Monday’s GAISF release, you have to skip to nearly the end. There you find this quote from the IOC director-general, Christophe de Kepper:

“Budapest has proved many times that it is a great city for major international sport events. It’s a perfect city to launch a pioneering initiative that will impact the future of sport. 

“The Budapest 2019 World Urban Games will be an excellent platform for showcasing 3x3 basketball and BMX freestyle, both of which will be on the Olympic program for Tokyo 2020. It’s a great opportunity to test innovations that will bring sport closer to the youth.”

Close observers of the Olympic scene know de Kepper prefers to stay out of the spotlight. He typically is not quoted in this manner. That he lent his name to this release indicates he had to have been closely involved in making this work.

So, to sum up:

Paraphrasing de Kepper: Budapest rocks. Further, Fürjes is clearly someone that FINA, the IAAF, now GAISF, the IOC and others in international sport have come to trust — that’s very significant. Moreover, Hungary didn’t back down or give up and the European sports model just got defended, big time.

“I believe,” Fürjes said in Monday’s release, and he deserves the last word, “that our city, Budapest will make the first edition of the World Urban Games an incredible experience for both athletes and fans. The World Urban Games is a great fit for Budapest.”