An Olympic Water Polo Battle Royale that Embodied the Cold War Struggle

The tension was palpable when the Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams splashed into the pool for their 1956 Olympic semifinal match in Melbourne. Soviet tanks sat in Budapest and a Hungarian populist revolt had just been put down with unre­strained brutality. Thousands of Hungarians lay dead in the street and hundreds more would soon be tried and summarily executed, including Prime Minister Imre Nagy. With this violent political struggle as backdrop, two of the most powerful teams in the sport took to the water. What was supposed to be spirited Olympic com­petition soon turned into something less, and something more—the blood of Budapest coloring the water of a swimming pool in Aus­tralia.

The sport of water polo has a violent history of its own: the overt tackling and pulling in plain view of the spectators pales in comparison to the roughhousing that transpires below the surface. During water polo's formative years in the late 1800s, players often came to the surface gasping for air and nearing unconscious­ness after a long struggle below. At the time, the sport was consid­ered so barbaric it was banned from university campuses in the United States. The match between the USSR and Hungary in 1956 brought water polo back to its violent roots, and then took it to a level never before seen.

Near the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet Red Army sent Hitler's boys packing and "liberated" Hungary, among other coun­tries. Having run roughshod over the Nazis throughout most of Eastern Europe, the Soviets grew fond of their new digs and decided to stay awhile. The war-ravaged natives had been flipped from Hitler’s frying pan into Stalin’s fire. They were not consulted on the matter, and a reluctant satellite began to turn in the Soviet orbit.

The Magyars had long been reluctant to accept anyone’s dominion—especially Russia’s—and when Stalin took a dirt-nap in 1953, the winds of change began to blow. The year of Stalin’s death there were riots against the Communists in East Berlin that were put down brutally. But the secret speech of new Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to the twentieth Party Congress, in which he denounced the crimes of Stalin, set a spark. In 1956, Poland upped the ante with an anti-Communist workers’ revolt. Although it was quickly squashed where it began, the uprising spread to the south. On October 23, 1956, the students and workers of Hungary rallied peacefully in support of the Poles, marched en masse to various symbolic points throughout Budapest, and recited their list of demands: a multiparty system, free elections, withdrawal of Soviet troops from their country, and revocation of the Warsaw Pact.

With or without Stalin, the country formerly known as the CCCP was not an ideal negotiating partner. The next day the Soviets entered the dialogue with the rumbling of tank treads and the methodical beat of the boots of 200,000 soldiers. By November 4, the Hungarian Revolution had been terminated in bloody fashion.

At the time of the uprising, Hungary’s water polo team was training on the outskirts of Budapest before departing for the Melbourne Olympic Games. They were largely unaware of the extent of the unrest, unaware that their countrymen were serving as speed bumps for Soviet armor. Not until they arrived in Australia week later did they comprehend the scope of what had happened. But by the time they faced their Communist oppressors in the semifinals the first week of December,* Hungary’s team had had plenty of time to digest the atrocities that had occurred in its homeland. The Olympics have long served as a proxy for political showmanship and the occasional settling of a cultural score. But never before or since has there been a match of two countries harboring this much ill will.

Prior to the match, the Hungarians were faced with a dilemma. They were the defending Olympic champion. Should they play the game straight and get to the final, or use it as a means of vengeance on the behalf of their fallen countrymen? They chose to do both. Hungary’s star forward, Ervin Zador, was quoted as saying, “We felt we were playing not just for ourselves but for every Hungarian. This game was the only way we could fight back.” And fight they did indeed, though the Soviets didn’t exactly roll onto their bellies and do the dead man’s float. At the first whistle, aqua-boxing became a new Olympic sport. Hungary struck the first blow, quite literally: as Dezsö Gyarmati fired the ball past the Soviet keeper for the first goal of the match, he slobber-knocked the nearest defender. The Soviets responded in kind when Vyacheslav Kurennoi delivered a knuckle borschtwich of his own and was promptly sent to the penalty box. A full-on naval skirmish ensued.

With Hungary leading 4-0 and only a minute to play, the violence peaked: while referees were attending to other matters, Valentin Prokopov propelled himself out of the water and blindsided Zador, who had scored twice, with a Cold War haymaker. Zador’s right eye hemorrhaged; there was blood in the water. The crowd had seen enough. Consisting mostly of Hungarian ex-pats seeking safe haven in Australia, they stormed poolside with the seeming intent of rolling up their trousers and joining the fracas. As the spectators’ passions boiled over, they pointed, cursed, and spat at the water-treading Soviets. But a sizeable security force quickly intervened—signs around the venue explicitly stated there was to be no running by the pool—and officials wisely called the game with Hungary declared the victors 4-0. This concluded one of the bloodiest events in Olympic history.

Afterward, the Hungarians threw a couple of red eyes on their bruises and went on to beat Yugoslavia in the gold medal match, 2-1, for their fourth Olympic water polo gold. Nearly half of the Hungarian Olympic delegation defected after the Melbourne Games. Their countrymen spent another four decades under the Soviet heel, including the time spent waiting for David Hasselhoff to outlast his Knight Rider contract and go about his true purpose: ending the Cold War.

* The Melbourne Games was the first occasion the Olympics were held south of the Equator. Because the seasons are reversed, the ’56 Summer Olympics took place in late November and early December.

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