Sport is defined by its iconic and unforgettable moments and within those moments are the photographs which encapsulate them. Water Polo has its iconic moment too. In the photography a man stands by the side of a swimming pool with blood pouring down the right hand side of his face, looking hazily into the distance having been punched by an opponent.
Next year will be the sixtieth anniversary of both the summer Olympics in Melbourne and the Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule, and the two events are inextricably linked. As Budapest became a battleground between idealised Hungarians and their Soviet oppressors, the two countries prepared to face each other in a grudge match where there was much more at stake than the final score.
Six months before both the uprising and the Olympics the two sides played each other in Moscow. The match ended in dressing room violence and accusations of biased officialdom - the referee was a Muscovite. At another fixture, in Hungary, fans turned their backs on the Soviet team as they were led out into the arena and heckled the national anthem. It was clear that on a personal level that the two sides did not like each other but there was professional respect, at least from the Soviets.
Hungary’s water polo pedigree at Olympic level dated back to the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Viktor Ageyev, a member of the Soviet team in 1956 acknowledged, “They were our idols, they were significantly better than us.” Hungary’s Istvan Hevesi concurred that, “They copied down everything that we did. The next day they did the same thing.”
Nevertheless, despite the respect afforded by the Soviet team to the Hungarians, this rivalry was going to be brought to a head by external political events. Following the end of World War II the Hungarian people elected a coalition government under the leadership of Zoltan Tildy which was increasingly undermined by the Communists who held sway over the state police. Soon afterwards the Communists took full control of the country and the repression began. Thousands were arrested, tortured, executed or deported to the USSR. The educational system was overturned in favour of a programme of compulsory Russian language tuition and Communist political study. Hungary suffered from hyperinflation, war reparations and unrealistic growth forecasts.
A fall in living standards and an increase in food shortages meant that there was fertile ground for anybody wanting to express resistance to the harsh regime and those who were caught doing so faced those most draconian of punishments, yet there was opposition to the Communist rule. Students became emboldened and violence finally erupted on 23rd October 1956 outside the Radio Budapest building as the secret police opened fire on protestors.
By 3rd November Soviet tanks surrounded Budapest and they entered the city in the early hours of the following morning. Resistance against the Red Army was fruitless and by 11th November the uprising was over. 2,500 Hungarians were dead and 20,000 wounded. Vengeance in the aftermath of the uprising was harsh. Tens of thousands were arrested and sentenced to prison, with hundreds more executed or sent to labour camps in the USSR. It was also estimated that 200,000 refugees fled Hungary.
The Hungarian water polo team, who were at a training camp in the mountains outside Budapest, were aware that something had occurred but not exactly what. They could hear gunfire and see smoke rising in the distance, but, shut away in their mountain retreat, they were isolated from any news.
It took the team three weeks to make the journey to Australia and it was only upon arrival that they began to fully appreciate what had happened back home in Budapest. Miklos Martin began to translate from newspapers to his teammates huddled around him in the airport. Fellow player Ervin Zador stated that it was whilst he was in the airport restaurant that he fully appreciated what had occurred and made a startling proclamation to his colleagues. “I stood up with a glass of water or whatever I was drinking and announced I was not going home.”
Zador knew he was taking an enormous risk by coming out with such a forthright statement but Hungarian officials travelling with the teams were themselves unsure of the political situation back home. Zador was fairly sure that he wasn’t alone with such thoughts and felt it was a risk worth taking.
Once the tournament began the Hungarian players progressed in a professional manner through the group stages despite uncertainties over both their own futures and the current welfare of their families. Victories against Great Britain, USA, Italy and a united German team saw Hungary face off in the semi-finals against the Soviet Union and the showdown that the players had been waiting for. The stage was set for 6th December and no quarter was to be given nor asked. For Hevesi the match was about revenge. “The fire inside us was beating so strongly.”
The crowd was boisterously partisan, filled with Hungarian ex-pats living in Australia, and the team knew that they had to take advantage of the atmosphere. Zador later said that, “The Hungarians [in the crowd] were so charged…all these people in Australia just went absolutely berserk.” The captains from both sides refused the pre-match handshake and the Hungarians decided that, instead of using physical violence, they would sledge their opponents. Russian was a compulsory language taught in Hungarian schools so the team had no problems in verbally abusing their opponents. The simple theory behind the ploy was that the more they wound the Soviets up, the more that their opponents would want to start a fight. This would cause the Soviet team to lose their discipline and be open to counter attacks.
This “verbal agitation” - as Zador playfully called it - brought about immediate results as three Soviet players were sin-binned along with two Hungarians. There were acts of violence both above and below water and the sledging continued. “We were yelling at them ‘you dirty bastards, you come over here and bomb our country’ and they were calling us traitors,” Zador later recalled.
The game’s defining moment occurred when Hungary were winning 4-0 with only two minutes left to play. Zador was asked to mark Valentin Prokopov, possibly the Soviets’ finest player. Zador felt the request would be no problem for him. “I’ll tell him he’s a sorry assed loser and his mother’s a loser.” Zador, though, became distracted by the referee blowing his whistle and when he realised his mistake it was too late. “I saw that arm coming in my face and I heard the crack, suddenly I saw I think 48 stars.” Blood began to pour from Zador’s face and cloud the pool. Many Hungarian fans began to rush down form their seats in a bid to attack the Soviet team. The referee finished the match and the Soviets were given a police escort from poolside.
Hungary progressed to the final where they beat Yugoslavia 2-1 without Zador, who couldn’t play due to the injury he suffered whilst being punched; his wound had required eight stitches. He did manage to stand with his team-mates as they received their gold medals.
After the match Zador stuck to his word and defected to the West, as did others involved in the team. Settling in San Francisco, his participation in water polo declined and he instead turned to swimming and began coaching; one of his protégés was the legendary Mark Spitz. His parents and brother eventually joined him in America and his two children both played water polo at college level. Zador never regretted his decision to defect. “Freedom is like breathing. Breathing openly.” He died on April 28th 2012 in Linden, California.
The match was made into a film documentary entitled Freedom’s, released in 2006. Director Megan Raney stated that the former players had no qualms about meeting their opponents after 50 years. Time essentially healed the rift between the thirteen surviving players and that the reunion which took place in 2002 was poignant.
Zador, perhaps most appropriately, has the final word. He believed that the Hungarian players were playing for far more than just themselves and their personal medal collection, and that even the Soviets didn’t realise how high the stakes were. “We felt that we were playing for not just for ourselves,” he said. “But for our whole country.”
You can follow Chris on Twitter @carmband.
Picture Credit to Laaja.
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