There are two layers to every water polo game: the graceful athleticism above the water, and the rough play and cheap shots hidden below the surface. The 1956 Melbourne Olympics looked a lot like a game of water polo. At first glance, they were presented as “friendly games,” but the deep hostilities of the Cold War simmering underneath.
No event of the Melbourne Summer Games presented more political stakes than the water polo semi-final match between Hungary and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Just weeks before the match, Soviet tanks and troops brutally crushed the short-lived Hungarian revolution.
Now the hated rivals were meeting face to face in the Olympic swimming pool. Before the game was over, these barely contained Cold War animosities erupted violently to the surface, and the legendary showdown would forever be known as the “blood in the water” match.
Student protests degenerate into Hungarian revolution
The Melbourne Games were held in late November and early December 1956 to coincide with the Australian summer. On October 23, Hungarian students staged a large-scale street demonstration calling for liberation from Soviet occupation and political repression. They toppled statues of Stalin and surrounded the state radio station, demanding to read a statement on the air.
The Hungarian secret police opened fire on the students. In response, members of the Hungarian army handed over their weapons to the demonstrators. Within days, what started as an isolated street protest in Budapest quickly turned into an armed revolution with supporters across the country. On October 28, Soviet troops stationed in Hungary retreated under a hail of bullets and Molotov cocktails.
The rapid success of the Hungarian revolution was as exciting for the Hungarian Olympic team as it was for the student protesters. The athletes, including the Hungarian Olympic champion water polo team, boarded planes for the long journey to Australia, believing they would be the first to represent a free Hungary in the aftermath of the world. war.
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As the games begin, the USSR crushes the Hungarian revolution
It took several days for the Hungarian Olympians to arrive in Melbourne, as their travel plans were disrupted by the Suez Crisis, in which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to destroy France and Britain if they were not withdrawing their troops from Egypt. channel.
As the world’s attention was focused on the drama unfolding in Egypt, Khrushchev acted with an iron fist against the uprising in Hungary. On November 4, the Soviets stormed Budapest with overwhelming firepower: hundreds of tanks, thousands of troops, and air support.
“Conservative estimates are that 2,500 to 3,000 Hungarians were slaughtered during the Soviet reinvasion, and the total Hungarian casualties amounted to at least 20,000,” said Colin Gray, a filmmaker who shot a documentary on the 1956 “blood in the water” water polo match titled The fury of freedom. “They were students and factory workers with Molotov cocktails against columns of tanks and warplanes.”
The Hungarian Olympic team had left Budapest in triumph and arrived in Melbourne in emotional shreds, mourning the loss of their compatriots and their regained freedom. Their shock and sadness quickly turned to rage, which they channeled into their athletic performance.
As fate would have it, the Hungarian water polo team – the big favorite to win gold again at the 1956 Games – were to face the Soviets in the semi-finals.
“For the Hungarian athletes, the stakes of the game were clear,” says Gray. “This is where they could face the Soviets on a level playing field. No tanks or planes, they were going to fix it in the water.
The two powerful teams knew each other well
The captain of the Hungarian water polo team was Dezsö Gyarmati, a “very powerful man”, explains Harry Blutstein, Australian journalist and author of Cold War Games: Spies, Subterfuge, and Covert Operations at the 1956 Olympics, in an interview with HISTORY.com. “Back then, water polo balls were made of leather and incredibly heavy. To practice, Gyarmati would throw a leather ball across the 30-meter pool, swim the full length of the pool, then do it again, over and over again.
As Gyarmati’s wife traveled with him to Melbourne, their 3-year-old daughter was at home in Budapest, and her fate, along with that of the rest of the players’ families, was unknown.
The Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams were no strangers. The Communist leadership in Moscow was bitter that the Hungarians won gold in 1952, when the Soviet team did not even win a medal. To show the world the superiority of the Soviet system, the water polo team traveled to Hungary to train for the 1956 games, and some players formed friendships beyond political lines.
One of those friendships was between Gyarmati and the captain of the Soviet team, Petre Mshvenieradze, a man known as “Peter the Great,” whose Blutstein back compares to a ping-pong table. Mshvenieradze often stayed with Gyarmati in Budapest.
But that didn’t mean there would be mercy in the pool.
“There was nothing that satellite countries like Hungary or Yugoslavia loved more than beating the Russians,” says Blutstein, and in 1956 there was much more than national pride at stake.
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An unbalanced game that ended with an iconic low blow
The Hungarian strategy was simple: verbally and physically abuse Soviet players until they lost their temper and retaliated, which would earn the Hungarians a penalty.
Gyarmati wasted no time hitting his old pal Mshvenieradze in the face, breaking his nose, Blutstein says. And when Mshvenieradze returned to the pool, Gyarmati hit him on the nose again, infuriating a man’s bear. Water polo is a notoriously physical sport, however, and most Hungary-USSR kicks and punches were not exceptional in their violence.
“The only difference was that it was continuous, it was vicious and it was personal,” says Blutstein. “There were some very angry Hungarians in the pool.”
As a game, it was pretty lopsided. The Hungarians won 4-0 just minutes from time when Ervin Zádor, the young star of the Hungarian squad, was given the task of guarding Valentin Prokopov, who has just broken a player’s eardrum. Hungarian. As the two argued for a position, Zádor launched a flood of insults at Prokopov, implicating the Russian’s mother in various unprintable acts.
With 90 seconds on the clock, the referee blew his whistle and Zádor turned, expecting a penalty to be called against the Soviets. With Zádor’s back turned, Prokopov came out of the water and girdled the Hungarian in the face.
As Zador retreated from the pool, blood flowed from a new wound under his eye. Cameramen captured the iconic image of Zádor standing by the poolside, blood streaming down the right side of his face, as Hungarian officials and fans rushed forward, threatening a riot.
The referees called the match and Australian police escorted the players to the locker rooms to avoid an all-out fight. The Hungarian team won the gold medal match against Yugoslavia, but Zádor was not medically cleared to play, an experience he later called “the most difficult hour of my life. “.
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At the Melbourne Games, 46 athletes defected
Although the CIA was banned from the games by Australian authorities, there were plenty of American spies posing as members of the press who organized visas for any athletes who wanted to defect to the West, says Blutstein. Several members of the Hungarian water polo team, including Gyarmati and Zádor, were among the 46 athletes who accepted the invitation.
“Before the semi-final game, there was definitely a team reunion,” said Gray. “The Hungarians basically said, ‘Let’s go beat the Soviets, win the gold medal and then each of you will do what’s good for your own future.'”
Gyarmati lived briefly in the United States before returning to Hungary to play for the Olympic team again. Zádor moved to California where he became a swimming coach. One of his star students was the young Mark Spitz.