An almost forgotten relic from Hungary’s golden years of bicycle track racing stands in the middle of Zugló. Its huge dimensions can only be perceived from a bird’s perspective: we are talking about the Velodrom, which – along with other sports facilities – sits on the territory of the Millenáris Olympic Centre. For the government to realise the dream of organising the Olympic Summer Games in 2024, the more than 100-year-old Velodrom would have to be rebuilt.
Reconstruction of the Millenáris Velodrom is progressing in a similar way to other construction projects worldwide: it was supposed to begin a long time ago. However, now it seems that previous plans have been completely wiped off the table. The bicycle race tracks must be built in a different way to contribute to making Hungary a bit more attractive as a possible venue for the 2024 Olympics.
This Millenáris is not the better known event centre in Buda but part of a group of buildings in Pest, which have been there for quite some time, including among others the Ferenc Puskás football stadium. The name marks the time of construction, as the Velodrom was built in 1896 for the Millennium Exhibition in Budapest – just like the Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park, where the exhibition was organised at that time, and the Műcsarnok art hall on Heroes Square.
András Hajós, twice an Olympic champion, participated at the inauguration event. The professional swimmer also contributed as an architect, and several decades after the opening of the Velodrom the building planned by Marcell and Ödön Neuschloss was rebuilt according to Hajós’ plans.
The reinforced-concrete bicycle tracks were one of the most modern and fastest of their kind in all Europe at that time. However, if you enter the facility in Budapest’s District XIV today, you will find this glamour completely gone. The tracks are uneven and grass is sprouting in the cracks of the concrete surfaces. A woman there when we visited said the tracks are used to play ice-hockey games in the cold seasons. The changing rooms and the ice-hockey posters on the walls in the first floor of the building prove that she is right.
Still, the Velodrom looks surreally large, even without the cheering fans and the sweating athletes. Walls sport graffiti and the stand advertising “hot sausages” has not been open for a long while. However, inside the building the visitor might feel nostalgic again. A sport museum opened in 1996, for the 100th anniversary of the Velodrom, presents yellowed pictures holding memories from the glorious past of the bicycle race tracks and the whole sports building complex.
The Millenáris is titled as “Cradle of the Hungarian sport”, while a painting on the wall announces that “You may smoke here”. Black-and-white photographs show cyclists on the tracks, including Kálmán Mazák, who was the nation’s beacon of hope in cycling at the beginning of the 20th century, wearing training shorts with an absurdly large Hungarian Coat of Arms on them.
A somewhat hidden (re-)mounted bronze table, signed by the memorial committee of the workers’ sports council, remembers the “athletes, who died as martyrs for the freedom and independence of our nation between the two world wars”.
If you would like to see communist curiosities, you will find them not that far from the Velodrom: the “Dromosz” sculpture park between the Ferenc Puskás Football Stadium and the László Papp Sports Arena holds 16 groups of sculptures from the 1950s, which celebrate sports as a national and political experience and which is seemingly practised by people – it does not matter if we are talking about men or women – with the same facial expression, with broad, literally steeled bodies, being controlled by fair referees.
To the Olympics with the Velodrom
It’s a shame that the Velodrom and the sculpture park are from time to time threatened by plans for demolition, replacement or new construction. Even if there is a sports museum in the territory of Millenáris offering an exhibition about Hungarian sports history, constructions such as the bicycle tracks or the Dromosz allow us to physically relive the history of Budapest.
However, the goal of the Hungarian government is not to turn its back to such sports institutions – quite the contrary. Hungarian cycling sport received more support from the state this year than ever. According to bikemag.hu this could lift the sport to an international level – once again.
The focus is, however, the possible bid to host the Olympics 2024. The Summer Games have never been organised by a Central or Eastern European country, Hungary would be the first. To support this plan and give hints on how to realise it, Brian Cookson, the president of United Cyclists International (UCI), visited Budapest and the Velodrom.
Even Prime Minister Viktor Orbán met the Briton, who was given a real Hungarikum, a chainless Stringbike, as a souvenir. Cookson’s knowledge about the requirements of the Olympic Summer Games is very accurate – the UCI was involved in formulating them.
For this reason, good or bad, one thing is certain: the Velodrom in its present form must go. The Váncza Művek company began architectural planning last year on the changes necessary to optimise Budapest’s chances of organising the Olympics. The reconstruction of the Velodrom was originally planned to be finished in 2017 but the present plans calculate for 2018-2019.