When Balázs Baji lunged for the line in the 110m hurdles final at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 to secure an unexpected bronze, he became the first Hungarian in the 34-year history of the global event to win a track medal.
For a nation better known for its success in the throws, particularly the hammer, the performance came as a shock to many, not least Baji.
“Even though I felt it could happen, I never believed it would happen,” says the modest and erudite 28-year-old. “It is a miracle I am the first (Hungarian) to win a track medal – it is a big deal.”
Born in the city of Békéscsaba in south eastern Hungary, sport formed an important part of Baji’s childhood. His mother and father were middle-distance runners and his uncle was a goalkeeper in the top professional soccer league in Hungary. Baji himself tried swimming, football and basketball in his youth and impressed in his occasional forays into school athletics competitions.
However, the formalising of his track and field journey began in slightly unusual circumstances.
“I was sat around the track alongside a good friend, who was very muscular,” Baji explains. “It was then that a coach (János Medovarszki) noticed the physical attributes of my friend and asked him if he wanted to start track and field training. I asked him if I could come too. He said, ‘sure,’ and that’s how I became an athlete.”
Aged 13 at the time, he discovered a gift for hurdling and rapidly developed into a national age-group champion
Given a sound foundation in hurdling by Medovarszki, Baji quickly rose through the ranks but it was only after setting a national U20 record of 13.60 to finish seventh in the 110m hurdles at the 2008 IAAF World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz did he first comprehend the possibility of a future as a professional athlete.
“It was the first time I felt I belonged at that level,” he explains. “It was a big milestone for me.”
After moving later that year to Budapest to study veterinary sciences, he connected with Istvan Tomhauser, the man who has guided him for the majority of this senior career.
Former coach to 2010 European 110m hurdles bronze medallist Daniel Kiss, Tomhauser’s quest for constant learning plus his passion for the hurdles has allowed Baji to flourish.
After a one-year stint in the US – when Baji studied and trained at Kansas State University – he returned to Budapest, principally to reconnect with Tomhauser and pursue his veterinary ambitions. It is not a decision he has regretted.
In 2011 he made a significant breakthrough when winning European under-23 silver in a Hungarian U23 record of 13.58.
The following year he made his Olympic debut in London and although he failed to advance from his heat, his respectful post-race actions when raising the arm aloft of 2004 Olympic champion Liu Xiang earned many plaudits after the Chinese athlete crashed out of his final ever race before limping to the finish.
“Liu was a hero of mine,” he says. “He was a great technician and a great champion. To say goodbye to the sport in that way must have been hard for him but he didn’t just disappear out of the back door (after falling after the first hurdle). He hobbled down the track and kissed the final hurdle. By raising his arm, I just felt like I was showing a little respect.”
Baji then embarked on an impressive streak of PBs and national records on the major championship scene. At the 2013 European Indoor Championships, he posted a Hungarian 60m hurdles record of 7.56 for fourth. Later that year at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow he blasted to a 110m hurdles PB of 13.36 in his heat before exiting the semi-finals.
At the 2014 European Championships, he lowered Kiss’s national 110m hurdles record of 13.29 to claim fourth, only missing out on bronze in a photo-finish to Pascal Martinot-Lagarde of France. Then after a disappointing 2015 campaign the following year, he trimmed 0.01 from his national record to win his maiden senior medal by banking silver at the European Championships in Amsterdam.
Baji credits his coach for allowing him to reach peak performance and his sports psychologist – with whom he has worked since 2012 – for giving him the mental and physical tools to prosper on the biggest stage. He also believes his veterinary studies, from which he finally graduated in February, have played a part in his ability to deliver his best when it counts.
“I went through long periods of very stressful exams but most years, about one month before a major championship, I had a break from study,” he explains. “This allowed me to get my mind together for track and field. I could finally eat and sleep well and maybe this was one of the reasons I performed so well.”
After suffering a rare major championship disappointment at the Rio Olympics – he failed to advance beyond the semi-final in 13.52 – he returned to Hungary determined to reach his first global major championship 110m hurdles final at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London.
Despite taking up a demanding role working four days a week for six hours a day as a vet at the university clinic earlier in the year, he enjoyed the best season of his career. During the indoor campaign he set a pair of national 60m hurdles records. Then outdoors he posted three national 110m hurdles records: 13.24 in Prague, 13.23 in Ostrava and 13.15 in Székesfehérvár.
“From nowhere my training started to go well, but I think when I work I have no time to think about track and field,” he says. “When I return to my life as a professional athlete, it is a huge release. I find the two jobs (vet and athlete) complement each other.”
Deliberately lowering the level of expectation leading into the World Championships, he maintained his composure throughout the competition, easing through his heat in 13.35 before claiming the scalp of 2012 Olympic champion and world record-holder Aries Merritt to win his semi-final in 13.23.
He gained huge confidence from the victory. In the final, he set off with a positive start and acceleration phase before clipping hurdle two and losing momentum. Some would have panicked, but Baji kept his cool.
“I stayed relaxed and tried not to make too many mistakes,” he explains. “From that point on, everything went well and by hurdle eight I realised I was in a medal-winning position, which was a huge surprise for me.”
After lunging for the line and the subsequent confirmation that he had earned bronze, the celebrations began and his special place in Hungarian sport was secured.
Since his medal success in London, he says his life has changed. Regularly recognised on the streets of Budapest – “they treat me like a star” – he is now swamped for selfies as his rising status in wider Hungarian sport is fully recognised.
Yet with typical modesty, Baji, who later in 2017 won the World University Games title, plans to continue working as a vet and has no plans to boast about his future ambitions.
“To stand on the podium as many times as possible and to win a title would be really nice, but I try to be realistic,” he says. “I don’t want to say out loud I want to be world or Olympic champion; I just want to continue in the sport and make the best of it.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF