Oh, to be in London now the Olympics are there. Actually, no. Now the Olympics are in London I’m not! The city is mad enough at the best of times, so I decided to escape during the build-up, first into the countryside and now north into Scotland. I’m in Edinburgh at the moment, on the threshold of a foray into the Highlands. While here I visited the Catherine the Great exhibition recently opened in National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, a fantastic experience which I intend to write about soon.
Thinking of Russia and thinking of the Olympics I have an angle that ties in both. It concerns an incident in the 1956 Melbourne Games, when sport turned into war by other means. My attention was drawn recently to what I now know has passed into history as the Blood in the Water Match, surely one of the most vivid and lurid spectacles ever seen in whole of the modern games.
It concerned a water polo match between the USSR and Hungary, a simple enough affair that came to symbolise so much more. It’s December, 1956. Only weeks before the Hungarian Rising against communist rule had been crushed under the treads of Russian tanks. Budapest, the capital, was in ruins. Across the world, where Hungarians were free to express any feelings at all against their ‘fraternal liberators’ they expressed nothing but hatred. They were free to express such feeling in Australia.
Hungary’s champion water polo team knew nothing of these events. They had been cut off from home while training for the games in adjacent Czechoslovakia, receiving no news at all. It was only after they arrived in Melbourne that they learned the extent of the violence.
Twenty-one-year old Ervin Zador, a star player and the only member of the Hungarian party who could read English, bought a local paper when their flight first touched down on Australian soil in the northern city of Darwin. No sooner had he read the news than he told his team mates that he was not going back home.
The Hungarians went on to dominate their event, winning through to the semi-finals. It was there that they met the Russians on 6 December. Tension was already high. The audience, dominated by Hungarian expatriates, turned their backs as the Russians entered. When the Soviet anthem was played they clapped loudly to drown it out. With shouts of Hajra Magyarok! (Go Hungarians!), they waved flags and urged on their countrymen.
“We always had an extra incentive when we played the Soviets, but the atmosphere at Melbourne was another dimension," Zador said. "The game meant so much to us. We had to win the gold medal. We were playing for ourselves, for our families back home, for our country."
Throughout the ensuing match, which the Hungarians won 4-0, there had been kicking and punching from both sides. No fewer than five players were ordered out of the pool by the referee. With only minutes left before the end Zador was punched in the eye by one Valentin Prokopov, the Russian player immediately opposite.
Seeing blood pouring from his eye, giving the encounter its infamous name, the Hungarian spectators in the crowd erupted. People raised their fists, shouted abuse and spat at the Russians. To prevent a riot the police were forced to intervene.
The team went on to win gold, beating Yugoslavia in the final. Though Zador was unable to take part due to his injury he stood on the podium for the medal ceremony. True to his word, he refused to return to communist Hungary, seeking political asylum in the West. He was joined by no fewer than half of the 100-member party that had come to Australia. Zador went on to settle in the United States, where he worked for many years as a swimming coach.
I’ve never believed that it’s possible to separate politics from sport, not so long as national passions are involved. In 1956 national passions were at a height. The Blood in the Water Match seems to me to be proof enough for this contention.