Blood in the Water

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Even before the match, the tensions were high. In October 1956, a student demonstration in Hungary led to a Soviet invasion; over a month later, on December 6th, Hungary and the USSR met in the water polo semi-finals of the Melbourne Olympics (held in December because of it was summer in Southern Hemisphere).

During the Hungarian Uprising, the defending champion Hungarians were training in a mountain camp above Budapest and later airlifted to Czechoslovakia to avoid being caught in the revolution. The players learnt of the true extent of the uprising and the suppression only after arriving in Australia.

In Melbourne, when Olympic officials raised the Communist-era Hungarian flag, many objected for it not being the Kossuth flag adopted during the Hungarian uprising. The flag was vandalized one night, with the communist emblem being removed from the center and replaced by the Kossuth Arms with a mark of mourning.

On the game day, the Hungarians devised a strategy to taunt the Russians, whose language they were forced to study in school. From the beginning, kicks and punches were exchanged. The Hungarian captain’s punching a Russian was caught on film; however, the infamous incident came during the last two minutes when a Soviet player punched Hungarian star-player Ervin Zádor (who had scored two goals earlier) in the eye. When Zádor left the pool (above), the frenzied crowd jumped on to the concourse beside the pool, shook their fists, shouted abuse and spat at the Russians. To avoid a riot, police — who had obviously been waiting out of sight — entered the arena with one minute to go and shepherded the crowd away.

It was one of the ugliest episodes in the Olympic Games’ history. Zador himself regretted it, saying the above photos shifted the focus away from athleticism. Hungary won the game 4–0, and beat Yugoslavia 2–1 in the final to defend the title. After the medal ceremony, Zador burst into tears. “I was crying for Hungary because I knew I wouldn’t be returning home,” he said. Indeed, fully half of the 100-member Hungarian Olympic delegation, including Zador, defected after the Melbourne Games.