Baron Pierre de Coubertin was convinced that sports “build friendly relationships among peoples,” and imagined the modern Olympic Games as a means of helping to foster peaceful international relations. In the Games’ long history, the athletic competition has also, quite to the contrary, served as a relay for intense geopolitical tensions.
The 1956 water polo match that opposed Hungary and the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which sadly passed in the annals of history as the “Blood in the Water” match, was without a doubt one of the most striking examples of those moments when politics entered the arena of the Games, to the point of subverting its most fundamental values.
Budapest uprising in 1956
To understand the antagonism that was unleashed on December 6, 1956 in Melbourne’s Olympic swimming pool, we need to look back at the European context at that time. Hungary had been under Soviet control for seven years and, in the fall of 1956, was the theater of a violent popular uprising against the dominant power in its capital, Budapest.
What began as student protests became a rebellion in early November when Prime Minister Imre Nagy announced Hungary’s desire to pull out of the Warsaw Pact, the military alliance formed a year earlier by eight communist countries in Eastern Europe. The USSR responded immediately by deploying a large detachment of the Red Army to Hungary on November 4 to suppress the rebellion.
The Summer Games... in fall
The Summer Olympics began on November 22, 1956 in the wake of this bloody repression that left thousands of Hungarian casualties. These were the first Summer Olympics to be organized in the fall. That year, Melbourne was the first city in the southern hemisphere to organize the Olympic Games, and the usual calendar had to be adapted to the seasons so that the events could take place in optimal weather conditions.
Watch: The remarkable moments when politics upstaged the Olympics
But the geographical distance between Australia and Europe was not enough to ease the blatant tension between the Hungarian and Soviet delegations, which was only exacerbated by the fact that the local public took the Magyars’ side from the opening ceremony. These tensions would finally explode during the water polo tournament, a sport of extreme importance to both nations.
The Hungarian Master meets the Soviet Apprentice
The Hungarian water polo team were the reigning Olympic and European champions and were the immense favorites to win the competition. Anything less than gold would have been a huge disappointment to them. On the other side, the ambitious Soviet team had put forth tremendous effort over the preceding years to become a strong contender in the sport, even training in Hungary to seek inspiration from the local methods.
The draw finally brought the two teams face-to-face in the semi-finals, but the geopolitical tensions overwhelmed the athletic rivalry in the minds of everyone present. “Right from the start of the match, observers could feel that the players were tense, short-tempered, vengeful, and obviously more interested in distributing snubs and insults than shots and passes,” as journalist Benoît Heimermann describes the match in The Olympic Games, from Athens to Athens, published by L'Equipe and the Olympic Museum of Lausanne.
An electric, yet predictable match
Though the match was heated from start to finish, there was really never any suspense as to its outcome. Quickly, and with boisterous support from the Australian public, the Hungarian team gained the advantage and firmly maintained control of the game. With only a few minutes left to play, the big favorites of the water polo tournament were leading 4-0.
With the winner already decided, the match took an even more vicious turn. Following an injury to one of his teammates, the Hungarian star Ervin Zador was positioned to defend the best Soviet player, Valentin Prokopov, and took the opportunity to openly mock him. The Soviet star flew off the handle and delivered a violent punch to his adversary’s head!
All-out brawl in the Olympic swimming pool
“I turned to see his fist flying through the air,” remembers Zabor, as quoted in The Guardian. “I saw his arm make contact with my face, I heard the crack, and suddenly, I saw stars.” The Hungarian player was hit above the eyebrow and fell back in the water, immediately covered in his own blood. The match degenerated into an all-out brawl!
Several players on either side were hurt and the protagonists finally made their way out of the pool, now tinted with red. The fight provoked a rush in the crowd and several spectators ran down the bleachers to challenge the Soviet players, who finally left the pool under police escort.
A symbolic “revenge”
Several days later, Hungary easily won the gold medal by beating Yugoslavia in the final. Placing third and wining the bronze medal, the Soviets had to suffer a final slight by listening to the Hungarian anthem on the podium. This “athletic revenge on geopolitics”, as political scientist Pascal Boniface dubbed it, was complete.
But their “requite” would remain purely symbolic. As the Games played out on the other side of the world, the Soviet troops continued their brutal repression in Budapest and permanently quelled the rebellion. At the close of the Games, more than half the Hungarian delegation (68 athletes out of 112) chose not to return to their country.