Blood in the Water

Let’s be honest, after a title like that I’ve already got your interests piqued at unusually high levels, so allow me, if you will, to properly set the scene.

It’s the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games; subsequently (and somewhat ironically) nicknamed ‘The Friendly Games.’[1] Australian athletes such as Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland and Murray Rose are slowly making the ’56 Games the most successful ever for Australia.[2]

On December 6, 1956 the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre (which may be more familiar to you now as The Westpac Centre: the training and administrative centre of Collingwood Football Club) hosted the men’s water-polo semi-final between the USSR and Hungary.[3] On the surface a men’s water polo match-up between the two nations seem incongruous and insignificant, especially in the context of rivalry, but let me assure you (and as the title indicates) this match was particularly worthy. In fact, not only is it considered the most famous and brutal water-polo game in Olympic history, but the match was never actually completed. It included numerous penalties, security escorts, and the young Hungarian forward Ervin Zádor being helped from the swimming pool with a wound to his right eye and blood streaming down his cheek.

The Rivalry

Rivalries really only require one thing; a distinct antagonistic element that manifests itself historically.[4] The Blood in the Water match had both.

Prior to the Melbourne Games (and by prior, I mean less than six weeks), on the 24th October, 1956 the Hungarian Uprising – a spontaneous and nationwide revolt against the government of the People’s Republic of Hungary and its Soviet-imposed policies – was crushed by over 200,000 Soviet troops that left more than 5,000 dead and caused another quarter of a million to evacuate for fear of persecution.[5]

At the time the Hungarian men’s Water Polo team were trapped in their training venue in the hills above Budapest without access to a pool. They remained there with their Soviet minders, hearing gunfire from the city below, watching fires burning and being in a state of genuine angst.

The Hungarian team arrived in Melbourne holding a serious grudge against the USSR, and as reigning world champions.[6]  However due to the above-mentioned circumstances it had been close to a month since they’d even seen in a pool. In a sit-down team meeting at the Olympic Village the Hungarians – worrying that they wouldn’t be sufficiently fit – developed a tactical approach, devising and implementing a method of zone defence which is now widely used in the sport.[7]

Hungary went on to comfortably win all three group matches to earn a semi-final against the runners-up in the other group. That team happened to be the USSR; a team which Hungary needed little motivation against at the time. Thus, at 3.25pm on 6 December, 1956, the most extraordinary match in water polo history began.

The Match

“We felt we were playing not just for ourselves but for every Hungarian. This game was the only way we could fight back.” – Ervin Zádor

Before water polo games, the captains of the two teams customarily meet at poolside with the referee and shake hands. At the 1956 Olympics, the Hungarian captain, Dezso Gyarmarti refused to shake. The crowd of more than 5,000 people who crammed the stadium was dominated by Hungarian expatriates, who shouted, “Hajra Magyarok!” (Go Hungarians!) , waved flags and shouted epithets as the Soviet players as they were introduced.

The Hungarians had planned merely to intensify their tactical game and provoke their opponents into error. “We had decided to try and make the Russians angry to distract them,” Zádor said. “The plan was: ‘we play, they fight.’”

It didn’t take long for the match to become a mass of kicking, gouging, and grappling above and below the water line.[8] The Hungarian captain, Gyarmarti scored the opening goal, but not without controversy. With his opposite throwing hand Gyarmarti had caught a Russian opponent, with what appeared to be a punch to the chin[9]. Minutes later, the USSR’s Vyacheslav Kurennoi was sent to the penalty box for slugging. The match quickly disintegrated into what Sports Illustrated described at the time as “open warfare… with players from both teams trading blows and headlocks.”

The Hungarians scored three more goals, including two by Zádor[10]. With the score at 4 – 0 and the game effectively decided Zádor’s teammate, Antal Bolvari, politely inquired if Zador wouldn’t mind marking his Russian opponent, Valentin Prokopov. The reason Bolvari gave was two-fold. One; that Prokopov was becoming “too much of a handful,” and two; “he had got hit [possibly by Prokopov[11]] and thought he had ruptured his ear-drum.”

Zádor happily obliged and Hungary was only a few minutes away from securing a place in the final, when as Zádor puts it:

“A whistle came, and I looked at the referee. I said ‘What’s the whistle for?’ And the moment I did that, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake… I shouldn’t have taken my eye off Prokopov. The next thing I saw, he had his full upper body out of the water and…with a straight arm, he just smacked me in the face. He tried to punch me out. I saw about 4,000 stars…I reached to my face and I felt warm blood pouring down.”

Prokopov’s sucker-punch had taken place after the referee had whistled for a break in play for a foul. Zádor, with blood streaming from a wound above his right eye was taken poolside (the famous photo of which can be seen below) and received 8 stitches[12]. Spectators poured down from their seats, seemingly intent on attacking the Russians. The referee, and Olympic Officials immediately declared the game over (with a full minute still left on the clock), and the Soviet players were briskly led from the pool under police escort. Hungary, leading 4 – 0 at the time, were declared the victors.

Due to severe swelling of his right eye, Zádor missed the final. Even without their star forward, Hungary went on to win Olympic gold against a valiant Yugoslavia, 2 – 1 and claim their fourth gold medal. It is however the semi-final of “The Friendly Games,” against the USSR which will go down as one of histories’ most brutal rivalries.

-B.R. Sitters

[1] During the closing ceremony athletes did not walk in team formation. The decision was made to allow athletes to march as one group, and Melbourne became known as “The Friendly Games”.

[2] For those that are interested: Whilst Australia has obviously won more medals (both gold and collectively) in subsequent Olympic Games, Australia finished 3rd on the Olympic Medal Tally in 1956 (with 13 Gold, 8 Silver, and 14 Bronze).  Neither prior or subsequent to the ’56 Olympics has Australia finished higher on the medal tally than 3rd. In Sydney 2000 we finished 4th (with 16 Gold, 25 Silver, 17 Bronze) and in Athens 2004 we again finished 4th (with 17 Gold, 16 Silver, and 16 Bronze). A nations “success” can, for obvious reasons, be extremely hard to define and become particularly subjective, i.e. Does one judge a nation on gold medals won, total medals won, a ratio of population size/number of competitors a nation has to medals , or simply from the overall medal tally? Either way it’s probably time to head back to the main text.

[3] If you happen to be pondering the peculiarity of an Olympic Games in December, it’s because the 1956 Olympic Games were the first to be held outside Europe and North America and the first in the Southern Hemisphere; and since the IOC insists on holding the Summer Olympic Games in summer…well you get the drift. (Interesting side fact #1: The 1956 Summer Olympic Games were actually a dual-hosted event. Due to quarantine regulations the equestrian events could not be held in Melbourne. Instead, they were held five months earlier in Stockholm, Sweden. This is only the second time in modern Olympic history this has happened. The first being the 1920 Antwerp Games where sailing events were held in Dutch water because of Belgium water quality.) And yes, I’m fully aware that the footnotes are becoming considerably larger than the main text.

[4] Think of some of the great sports rivalries in history (which will hopefully be covered in subsequent articles). Whether the rivalry exists because of geographical location (River Plate v Boca Juniors, Man Utd v Man City), nationalistic pride (Australia v England in The Ashes, England v Wales in the Six Nations), historical significance (Lakers v Celtics), greater market share (Nike v Adidas), or two (often contrasting) world-class opponents competing at their respective peaks (McEnroe v Borg, Prost v Senna, Frazier v Ali, etc.) each one will have a distinct and unique antagonistic element that developed over time.

[5] At the conclusion of WWII the USSR “liberated” and occupied several eastern bloc states that were duly converted into Soviet Satellite states. Hungary was one of those states, and it appears reasonable to declare that the subsequent repression of the People’s Republic of Hungary’s people by the Mátyás Rákosi (later replaced as prime minister by Imre Nagy) led Hungarian Working People’s Party (I promise I haven’t quoted ad-lib from Monty Python’s Life of Brian) was considered unfavourable at best.

[6] Water Polo is a major sport in Eastern Europe. In Hungary it is second only to football and the Hungarians have long been a dominant power, winning eight Olympic gold medals.

[7] Not being adequately versed in the subtleties of Water Polo tactics I will use Zádor’s own explanation of a zone defence: “We became very defence-minded…We had travelled all over the world and people didn’t expect us to play like that. Our opponents didn’t know how to handle it. We double-marked the most dangerous opponent and chose one player to leave free. We shouted to him: ‘OK. Go ahead and shoot.’ No one expected to be given the choice to shoot against us. But we had a very good keeper, and these players became nervous, and then they were never going to score. It was totally a mind game.”

[8] Admittedly, this is not uncommon to most Water Polo matches. However, and for what should now be entirely obvious reasons, the tensions were slightly higher.

[9] I use the words “caught” and “appeared” here, because it is unclear from all the accounts I have read whether Gyarmarti’s actions were deliberate or a consequence of a follow-through. I will editorialise here and add that if the former is to be believed, it is an impressive piece of skill for a player to be able to score with a full revolution of one arm and also punch an opposing player in the face with the other. Given the circumstances of the match I would not be surprised if the former turned out to be true.

[10] Zádor, who never played for Hungary again and became emblematic of the Blood in the Water match, was actually considered one of the best young players in men’s Water Polo at the time. After the Olympics, and along with the majority of his teammates, Zádor defected to the United States. Of all the members of the Hungarian water polo team who defected, Zádor’s sacrifice was the greatest, according to Nick Martin (a star of the Hungarian team). “Most of us were older and our careers were coming to an end,” Martin said. “Ervin was the youngest player on the team. He could have been one of the best—if not the best—in the world. Water polo is the second most popular sport in Hungary, after soccer. Ervin would have been a major star in Hungary for many years—a national institution.”

[11] With so many haymakers, headlocks and grappling going on it seems unclear who actually hit Bolvari.

[12] Accounts of just how many stitches Zádor required vary depending on the source. From what I can tell the wound required somewhere between 8 and 13 stitches.


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