Képes Sport
2023.01.18 10:43 Frissítve: 2023.01.18 11:16

„I stretch the paddle that I almost sweat” – Sándor Petőfi, born 200 years ago, and sports

Sándor Petőfi. He’s been a mystery and a legend for two hundred years. A rebellious rock star, eternal child, conscious litterateur, ardent revolutionary, true patriot, instinctive genius, adoring artist, unbearable hysteric. And, as the article below shows, a true fan of sports.

Sándor Petőfi, the sportsman (Photos: Collection of the Petőfi Literary Museum, Wikipedia)

„Then Petőfi, a born attacker,
Unruly, but the coach still forces it.
The best age as a striker: twenty-six,
He runs, he hides, he jumps, he feels.”
(from the poem Sport by Balázs Szálinger)

Little is said about the sporting aspects of Sándor Petőfi's life, although there is much to talk about, since the poet, who was born two hundred years ago, was always active. „He is skillful and daring in games,” Gyula Illyés describes the schoolboy Petőfi in his monographic prosaic work. „His slim, slender stature is carried swiftly by his legs; he beats everyone in running races. With his long arms, he throws the ball further than anyone. That is until someone from the children's team starts taunting him for throwing with his left hand - ungainly! From then on, he doesn't throw.” The recollections of contemporaries further color the picture. He liked ball games. He enjoyed sliding on the ice in the winter. He was good at gymnastics, and he wrestled when he had to. His love for exercising is clear from his poem Búcsúzás (Farewell), written in 1838. „And you, dear places, where we have had much fun / Or sat down in a great circle, or whipped the ball / And scampered, or leaped, or in sweet joy / sung to merry melodies, and now there is silence at our favorite / Place, we shall leave you hereby!” (free translations)

However, it is not clear whether he could swim. If we go by his journal called Úti jegyzetek (Travel Notes), the answer is presumably no – he nearly drowned in the Rimava River while walking in Rimavská Sobota in May 1845. „The water is not big, but I was bathing just below the mill, where, wanting to strike straight through, I was swept under the waves. If it had been wine, but to drown in water... it would have been embarrassing!” Or there is the case of a year earlier, shared with the public by his contemporary colleague, cartographer Imre Péchy in 1879. Petőfi was rowing with local acquaintances in Dunavecse that spring when János Szűcs (who was in the boat as a helmsman) fell into the Danube and was almost lost. The poet, however, "managed to snatch him from the jaws of death by steering his boat swiftly. Petőfi was hailed by many for his bravery; only his loving mother warned him not to go on the boat again, for he might fall into the Danube, too." Almost immediately, he made the heroic adventure into a poem (titled Vizen (On water)): 'I talk to my small boat / The chattering foam; / I stretch the paddle, / that I almost sweat. // Mother, if you could see me now, / I know you'd say: / „For God's sake... if you fall... / Aren't you afraid to die?” (free translations)

The Petőfi resting spot between Pomáz and Szentendre, on the side of Kő Hill


The „prepositional tension” lurking in the first two verses illustrates the difference between being on the water and being in the water for Petőfi – who not only loved rowing but understood it as well. As Péchy points out in his aforementioned article, “our poet, moreover, perfected rowing to such an extent that he could steer the boat – with two paddles – without a helmsman.” Even if he did have a helmsman, he sometimes interfered with his work, and on such occasions, he quipped: „in order to paddle the water, you also have to worry about whether your boat is headed to its destination.” (free translations)

Of course, Sándor Petőfi's 26 years included many other sporting activities. He traveled almost the entire country on foot, often because he had no other choice, but he also enjoyed wandering in nature for pleasure. He also enjoyed playing cards, dice, and pool, mostly at Pilvax, where the balls rolled on four – to use the parlance of the time – „bowling tables.” Whether he was a good player or not is hard to say: some recollections say that he was good with the cue, but Márta Szabó, in her study Biliárd és szerencsejátékok a kávéházban (Pool and Gambling in the café), writes that „he loved the game, but he could hardly play pool. On one occasion, he got into a fight because he had thrown a ball into another guest's glass.” (free translations)

The interior of the Pilvax Café in the Reform era, in a colored pen-and-ink drawing by József Preiszler. In the background, the green baizes of the „bowling tables” are clearly visible
This was the cue he used at Pilvax, where, according to Illyés, he felt at home „in the noise of the clacking of the balls”

Petőfi, like Mór Jókai, used his own cue in Pilvax; the light brown, smoothly polished, tapering downwards, inlaid piece is on display in the Petőfi Literary Museum.

As well as his chess set because Petőfi was also fond of this popular intellectual sport. A Pesti Hírlap article published in 1908 recalls an incident when the poet stayed with the Tyroler family in a small courtyard room in Pest. "Old Tyroler was a passionate chess player and after dinner, in the evening, he would play chess for hours with the poet, who would laugh with gusto at Uncle Tyroler's Hungarian pronunciation when he could not articulate the name Petőfi and kept calling him Péterfi.” Petőfi did not, however, use any chess terminology in his writings, except in the first lines of his short story A szökevények (The Runaways), published in 1845, and in his letter to János Arany, written on July 1, 1848, in which Petőfi wrote: „But do not grieve, that was the end of your enemies, with which they carried me off, that was their end, one more tap on the head, and then checkmate!” (free translations)

Petőfi’s chess set – he even played it with General József Bem


Earlier, in our video series „Budapest Football Tales,” we mentioned that Sándor Petőfi applied for military service in the very building on Akadémia utca in Pest in 1848, where the Hungarian Football Association was then founded in 1901. The gun-toting poet's more immediate sporting connection is that he tried fencing and shooting in one way or another. From an article published in Új Idők (New Times) in 1949 by the eminent sports historian Ferenc Mező, we know that the young man from Kiskőrös learned swordsmanship from the master of the National Fencing Institute in Pest, Lajos Chappon, author of the 1839 textbook Theoretical and Practical Introduction to the Art of Fencing. He attended the fencing school at the instigation of his friend, law student Antal Várady, whom he met in 1843, and he was his companion during most of the lessons. According to the occasional opponent's memoirs, Petőfi found it hard to take being cornered, and as a „sensitive” man, his self-esteem was hurt by such situations, and his skill in fencing and target shooting made him capable of settling disputes in a chivalrous manner. In a poem entitled Levél Várady Antalhoz (Letter to Antal Várady), written on May 22, 1846, he inquired about the recent adventure of a fellow fencing student: „Has the duel happened? and are you still alive? / If you get a bullet in the head, let me know / Write to me right away so that I can rush to Pest, / And take revenge for you, my friend... / A word is a word, but I really don't like / That you're ready to risk your life / for any foolishness. / Do you think your body and soul are beard? And if / they shave you down, will you grow out again?” (free translations)

Lajos Chappon taught the poet the basics of swordsmanship

Although we know of several documented examples of duel-threatening situations in Petőfi's life, in the end, there is no evidence that such a drastic release of tension ever took place. In the 1973 issue of the journal Tudományos Sportélet (Scientific Sports Life), we read the most detailed collection on the subject by László Varga, right from the first episode with a classic writer in the role of the duel assistant (and narrator): the source of the story is Mór Jókai. „Once Petőfi enters with great strides. ‘Will you be my duel partner?’ ‘Of course, I do. Who hurt you? Who do I challenge?’ ‘Benőfi!’ ‘And for what reason?’ ‘Because he made assonance of my name. How dare he make a name like mine for himself?’ ‘That's not enough reason for a duel.’ ‘Yes, but he writes bad poetry, and the public thinks I wrote it all.’” He was terribly angry with him: but then he had to give up the idea of the duel: after it turned out that his assonance was an ordinand at the Seminary of Eger.” (free translations)

In the end, Sándor Petőfi only got as far as “almost-duels”

The half-century-old article warns that not everything in Jókai's soaringly imaginative anecdotes should be taken literally, "but in this case we must give credence to his description, knowing Petőfi's sudden, unruly dueling skills." This sudden dueling skill was also evident in the poet's later moments of fiery heat. For example, in 1845, when he had a disagreement with Mihály Tompa, to such an extent that, according to his poet companion, after they met, "a few weeks later, things were about to go to gunfights between us."  He also challenged newspaper editor Imre Vahot to a duel for publishing one of his poems without his permission, but the challenged party backed down after a day and a half of deliberation. Petőfi complained about the cowardly retreat in a letter he wrote to János Arany. He later sought a duel with the lawyer-editor, still in vain, although, according to Gustáv Zerffi, he practiced regularly in the courtyard of Neugebäude under the command of Captain Mack in preparation for one of the affairs.


His most famous "almost-duel" is connected to the 1848 election of the senator of Szabadszállás. The poet who was ultimately defeated in the election challenged his victorious opponent, Károly Nagy, for his personal and impertinent article in Pesti Hírlap. "When I first sent my seconds (my duel assistants, Jókai and Pálffy) to him, not only did he not accept the duel outright, but he immediately ran to Móric Perczel, as chief of police, to protect his life, because I wanted to take revenge on him by illegal means" - Petőfi recounted the events. The other candidate for senator reluctantly but finally agreed to a duel on the sword, but the challenger insisted on the sharp, pistol-fought version. "My principle is that I never fight for fame alone; but if I do, it must be to the death, because duels are no joke; I will only fight with the man who insults me like that cripple so that I can then brandish my weapon at him with the same passion as a mad dog coming towards me." (free translations)

He received his curved-bladed sword in 1848

Petőfi was not afraid of a dueling threat, even when he had business with his superior. On May 8, 1849, he wrote to Lieutenant General György Klapka (the affair gave birth to the poem “Egy goromba tábornokhoz (To a Rude General)”, after the ad hoc Minister of War had failed to confirm him in his rank of major during their tense meeting in Debrecen: "You 1) did not consider my word of honor in certain matters sufficient. You 2) assumed that I wear the major's uniform without being appointed. You 3) only wanted to release me against a medical certificate. You 4) forbade me to write. All this briefly: 1. Petőfi is not an honest man. 2. Petőfi is a cheeky and vain deceiver of the world. 3. Petőfi is a bad patriot because he leaves the battlefield and lies about illness. 4. You are Petőfi's totalitarian leader, as the Habsburgs were the nation's totalitarian leaders, who subjected him to censorship. Sir! These are things for which, in peaceful times, I would have called you for revenge, and perhaps I would have shot you like a sparrow, for I shoot fairly; but now, since we have to fight not ourselves but the enemy, I have chosen the second way, which my patriotism has prompted me to do, and have left, in silence and modesty, an army whose minister does not believe in the word of honor of his own officers, whereas the word of honor of captured Schwarz Gelb officers is also valid.„ (free translations)

Authentic portrait of Sándor Petőfi



Even after thinking about it for a while, we can't remember any of our great poets having had a sports club named after them – apart from Sándor Petőfi.

Basically, we are talking about the mammoth trade union community (Petőfi SE) established under the name of the poet in the capital and the countryside, but two important clubs should be mentioned separately: BSE, founded in 1913, and Közalkalmazottak Sport Egyesülete (KASE), founded in the spring of 1945, are now called Bp. Petőfi VTSK and Bp. Petőfi SE. According to a volume published in 1988 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of BSE, on January 29, 1951, the National Council of Trade Unions (SZOT), on the initiative of Csepel Vasas, decided to set up a unified system of sports associations by profession. The measure covered ten trade unions, including those of public servants. The many sports clubs were previously organized by the sports department of SZOT, and after the renaming, Petőfi SE was responsible for it, but searching through old documents, one phrase repeatedly comes across: the national organizing office of Petőfi sports clubs, whose initial president was Ferenc Szirbik, but then it was certainly Lajos Magera from August 1951.
In light of the quotations from the BSE history publication, let's look at how Petőfi SE was announced in Népsport... The newspaper on February 2 reported that three days earlier, „The basketball section of Közalkalmazottak SE held the ceremonial award ceremony of the 1950 league in the special room of Gellért Baths.” Sándor Seprényi, President of Közalkalmazottak Szakszervezete, spoke at the ceremony and pointed out that „the excellent sporting results are also due to the fact that the Soviet Union liberated our country and that the Party provides all the support for the development of the sporting movement. Then presented the decision of the Presidium of SZOT on the establishment of unified trade union associations, as a result of which the sports association of KASE will be known as Petőfi SE in the future.”

However, nowhere did we find out why the name of Sándor Petőfi inspired the union...

Fencer László Rajcsányi (Petőfi, Bp.) won the Olympic title

Six months after the renaming, the first presidential election meeting was held, at which some numbers were presented. According to these, 37 sports clubs in the capital and 57 in the countryside had 9 500 members under the auspices of Petőfi SE. Successes were discussed, and several top athletes were elected to the board: Kálmánné Blahó, national team basketball player, Márta Jávori, tennis player, Borbála Kaszás, national team volleyball player, László Rajcsányi and Magda Nyári, fencers. The sports clubs were obliged to sponsor secondary schools, for example, Petőfi VTSK was a partner of Veres Pálné, Leöwey Klára and Eötvös High Schools, as well as the agricultural technical school in the district. Petőfi VTSK's sports club was praised for its successful work, but it was also criticized for not having enough support from elite athletes in the patronage work.
And speaking of top athletes, let's highlight some of the big names who have also achieved great success as „Petőfi athletes.” At the top of the list are fencers, such as László Rajcsányi, a saber fencer who – already well into his forties – won Olympic (1952) and World Championship gold medals as a team (1951, 1953); Magda Zsabka (1952, 1953, 1954) and Magda Nyári (1952, 1954, 1955) became three-time world champions in the women's épée team; but we could also mention the foil fencer Pál Dunay and Barnabás Berzsenyi. (Rajcsányi won the first Olympic title for the BSE – its predecessors and successors!) János Parti is also a historical figure, who, as a competitor of Petőfi VTSK, finished second in C-1 1000 meters at the first „medal” Olympics of Hungarian canoeing in Helsinki in 1952. Bp. Petőfi's women's basketball team won three championships (1951, 1952, 1954) in this period, while the women's volleyball team reached the top in 1951, with national team players such as Borbála Kaszás and Anna Koska.
It is interesting to note that Petőfi – due to founding Bástya by merging of Fáklya, Lendület and Petőfi – was deleted from the names in 1955 and 1956, and then reintroduced in 1957 when the short-lived Bástya was "dismantled.” The women's basketball team won the championship in 1959, the volleyball team in 1961, again „proclaiming” the poet, or, for example, the two-time Olympic speed skater György Ivánkai became the country’s best skater for the ninth time as Bp. Petőfi’s athlete. Figure skater László Vajda won the last league title as a "Petőfi athlete" at the age of 15 in January 1970, just before the BSE was re-established in February. It should be stressed that since the name of VTSK had not included the name of Youth of March since 1957, János Parti's Olympic gold medal in 1960, among other successes, cannot be called a „Petőfi success.”
There are still clubs, usually smaller football teams, here and there bearing the poet's name. On the other hand, there was once an NB I team, too: SZSZMTE, the successor to the recognized SZAK, was renamed Szegedi Petőfi, but it only played in the top flight in the 1951 season, because it finished 14th, in the last place, and relegated to NB II, having collected only ten points.


János Parti (Petőfi VTSK) won the canoe silver medal in 1952

(The article appeared in the Saturday supplement of Nemzeti Sport, in the January 14, 2023 issue of the magazine Képes Sport.)

translated by/fordította: Vanda Orosz

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