Blood in the Water
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This bloody nationwide revolution against the Soviet-controlled Hungarian government remains one of the greatest acts of resistance and patriotism ever. Armed protesters took over government buildings and began executing Soviet officials and destroying Soviet property.
Water polo, one of the most popular sports in Hungary and a sport which their national team had dominated in the Olympics before WW2. Tensions between the Soviet and Hungarian National teams were already high and were only exacerbated by the violence mere months before the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. At the time of the revolt, the Hungarians were at a training camp high in the mountains above Budapest and were later moved to Czechoslovakia to avoid the violence. The team did not learn the extent of the violence until they arrived in Australia a month and a half later.
Many Hungarian athletes felt that these Olympics were a way to salvage their self-pride and the pride of their country. Tensions were running high in any competition that included Soviet and Hungarian athletes. The Olympic Water Polo tournament began on the 28th of November with Hungary being in group B with the United States and Great Britain. Hungary quickly showed their skill by defeating Great Britain 6-1 and The United States 6-2.
Hungary then advanced to the quarter-final where they dominated Italy winning 4-0. The Soviets barely squeaked by in the quarter-finals beating Italy 3-2. This set the stage for the semifinal game between the USSR and Hungary. From the beginning, this was set to be an intense game. Gyorgy Karpti, a leader on the team said, “ In the strained political situation we were in, it was a body-to-body encounter with our opponents.”
On December 6, 1956, at 3:25, the match began. From the beginning punches, kicks and headlocks were all being thrown under the water. Part of the Hungarian’s strategy was to physically and verbally abuse the Soviet players until they retaliated and were penalized. This began when one of the Hungarian captains, Gyarmati, broke one of the Soviet’s noses with a wayward punch.
It was said afterward by the Soviets that the Hungarians were vicious in their abuse and that it was non-stop. Many of the Hungarians were still angry about the violence of the Hungarian Revolution just months earlier. As the game came to a close it was obvious Hungary was the better team as they went on to win 4-0. However, in the final 2 minutes, a Soviet player finally retaliated for the constant harassment throughout the game by taking a swing at the Hungarian Ervin Zador. The punch caught Zador above his right eyebrow giving us the iconic image of Zador standing poolside, blood streaming from his brow as Hungarian fans and players surged forward, threatening to riot. After this, the officials called the game and both teams were escorted back to their locker room.
The Hungarians went on to win over the Yugoslavs 4-0 giving them their 4th Olympic Gold. In recent years there has been more light shed on the game and even a documentary released. After the Olympics, many of the Hungarians defected to the West for fear of their safety in Hungaria.