SIOM #15: The Handgrenade Hardened Hungarian

Recent headlines have featured the tragedies that have befallen the people of Norway, including a murderous rampage by a crazed gunman that claimed the lives of almost a hundred people. Given these events, some may question the wisdom of my choice for this week’s feature – Károly Takács, a man little known outside of his native Hungary, where he is revered as one of his country’s Olympic greats. Takács is a marksman who himself fell victim to a senseless violent episode which would have cost him his career had he allowed it to.

Takács was born in Budapest. Following his formal education, he joined the national army, where his talent for marksmanship was quickly identified and actively developed. By 1936 he was sufficiently skilled to warrant a place in the Hungarian Olympic team, but was excluded on the grounds that he was a sergeant and only commissioned officers were eligible to compete. He was thus denied a place in the Olympic team that travelled to Berlin (where Jesse Owens won four track gold medals and Fanny Blankers Koen achieved little besides obtaining Owens’ autograph).

After the Berlin Games, the “seniority restriction” hitherto applied to Olympic team selection was lifted. Two years later, Takács was already recognised as a leading contender for the 1940 Games, scheduled to be held in Helsinki. One fateful day in army training, however, he fell victim to a faulty grenade, which exploded prematurely and shattered his right (shooting) hand to bits and, many prematurely presumed, obliterated his dreams of Olympic glory as well. He spent a number of months in hospital, such was the extent of his injuries, and would suffer from a partially functional hand for the rest of his life. Surely many would have forgiven Takács had he decided to wallow in self pity and live the rest of his life wondering what might have been. He realised, however, that reflection and self pity were luxuries for those with time and, with little over a year to the 1940 Games, he hadn’t much of that.

Barely a year after his injury, Takács attended the 1939 Hungarian Pistol Shooting Championships. He was regarded with respect and a measure of pity for having the courage to watch his former rivals compete in an event that, had his right hand been intact, he could well have won. Condolencies and compassion for the Takacs the spectator were, however, soon replaced by incredulity and congratulations for the Takacs the contender, whose effort was sufficient to warrant a place in the national team. It transpired that he had been training in secret for months. He emerged as worthy an opponent as he had been prior to his accident, with one major difference – he had taught himself to shoot with his left hand.

Before investigating Takács’ record at subsequent Games, it’s worth understanding the gruelling nature of his event, the 25m rapid fire pistol. The competition consists of two stages. Each stage comprises thirty shots, fired as six series of five shots each. Each five shot series is subject to a time limit, being 8 seconds for series one, 6 seconds for series two and 4 seconds for series three (i.e. more than one shot per second). This is repeated to complete series four, five and six. Competition rules state that, at the beginning of each series, the competitor’s shooting arm must be raised from a 45 degree starting position and, crucially in Takács’ case, must be unsupported throughout. The target consists of concentric zones, the centremost of which is worth ten points, yielding a maximum possible score of 600.

Károly Takács strzela podczas zawodów Polska-Węgry-Jugosławia, Bydgoszcz, 1961

Having regained his position in the national team, Takács again set his sights on Olympic glory at the 1940 Games. Unfortunately, both these Games and the 1944 Games were cancelled due to World War II, and he would have to wait a while longer. Filled with tenacity and unwavering self belief, he qualified for the Hungarian Olympic team that travelled to London for the first post-War Games in 1948. This fairytale would not be plain sailing. The 38 year old Takács faced a formidable opponent in the form of 31 year old Argentine Carlos Enrique Diaz Saenz Valiente, the reigning world champion and world record holder.

Valiente, having heard of Takács’ misfortune, was surprised to see him at the 1948 Games. When Valiente asked him what he was doing at The Games, Takács humbly replied that he was “there to learn”. Takács’ temperament was pushed to breaking point during the compeition when his gun flashed fire during one of the series, as he was taking aim. The judge ruled this a failure shot, a decision that, had it stood, would certainly have eliminated Takács’ chances of a gold medal. After a lengthly deliberation, the jury allowed him to repeat the shot. Later that day, as Valiente looked up to Takács from the silver medal winner’s podium, he said, “I think you’ve learnt enough”. Takács had finally attained his Olympic dream, breaking the world record in the process.

Takács, however, was was not content. He travelled to Helsinki four years later, where he had been due to perform at the 1940 Games prior to their cancellation. The 1952 Games saw many special performances – three gold medals for Emil Zatopek, more world records broken than any Games before or since and 42 medals for Takács’ native Hungary, placing them third in the overall league table, behind the far more populous nations of the United States and the Soviet Union. One of those Hungarian medals belonged to Takács. Naturally, his was gold.

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