Tuesday 31 July 2012

War By Other Means

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 present, on the threshold of a foray into the Highlands.  While here I visited the recently-opened Catherine the Great exhibition being held 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.  I have to thank Zunnur, who, in a comment on my recent blog on Hungary (Hungary’s Future is all in the Past, 18 July) drew my attention 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 news from home while training for the games in adjacent Czechoslovakia.  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 exiles, 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. 

With 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 beat 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 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.  The 1956 national passions were at a height.  The Blood in the Water match seems to me to be proof enough for this contention.  


  1. Hi Ana,

    No doubt this is one of the Olympics most fractious battles. The umpire must have had a very tough time controlling the match.

    1. I feel sorry for the poor chap! Thanks again for pointing me in the direction of an altogether fascinating story.

  2. It is good to remember how bad things can be, yet people who love liberty refuse to submit to tyranny.

    The Hungarian Uprising may be the first political event I remember, followed a little later by Sputnik. I certainly remember the building of the Berlin Wall and the Prague Spring. For more than half my life, war with the USSR in Europe seemed almost inevitable. Proxy wars of extraordinary viciousness were fought all across the world . . . why would they not break out at home?

    In the early 1960s, Britons lived under the shadow of the Bear. Fast jet pilots sat in their cockpits around the clock, ready to scramble. The UK's early warning system offered 4 minutes of grace, before the Soviet missiles would strike. Every week, RAF pilots of English Electric Lightning interceptors would turn back probing Tupolev bombers (based on stolen Boeing B29 Superfortress plans). Half the Labour Party, and maybe quite a few members of other Parties (in secret) were in bed with the Soviets.

    Millions of people waged secret war for decades until the 1980s. Mrs T, RR, and M. Gorbachev abruptly ended that extraordinary struggle in a fashion that was utterly unexpected by all the sages and pundits whose ideas of hegemony and 'spheres of influence' and 'status quo' had ruled for almost half a century. Like an arm-wrestling contest, the conflict ended with the complete exhaustion of one of the contestants - but until that submission, no one knew which would submit, only that the struggle could not be abandoned without a terrible cost. Luckily for the Soviets, the right side won.

    And now we have a new catalogue of struggles, but these are defined by a very different set of parameters.

    1. Indeed they are, Calvin. In a way I envy those past certainties, the clear demarcations between what was right and what was wrong. Now the enemy is much less easy to identify.

  3. We should have nuke'd the Russians at the end of WW2.

    1. The opportunity here was far too narrow, Anthony. The nuclear arsenal, for one thing, was limited, and by the time it was not the Russians had their own atomic capacity. For another, an attack any time between 1946 and 1950 would almost certainly have resulted in Soviet conventional forces, of which they had a significant superiority, overrunning all of Western Europe, aided by communist parties in such places as France and Italy.

  4. I'd never heard of that incident - thanks for the retelling.