This story appears in the June 18, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
It began as a joyride, two snub-nosed buses with Olympic banners hung from the grills, rumbling north toward the Czech border. Over the previous week students and workers had risen up to cast out Hungary's brutal, corrupt Communist government -- a regime that in its zeal to please Moscow had been even more Stalinist than the U.S.S.R.'s. The Soviets, who paid Hungarians a third of their products' value, only to sell them again at three times their worth? Haza! (Go home!)
The AVO, Hungary's 30,000-member secret police, which terrorized a population of fewer than 10 million? Haza too!
After a week of excruciating uncertainty, the leaders of the revolution had decided that a Hungarian delegation would indeed compete in Melbourne, at the 1956 Olympics, under the flag the rebels had remade by shearing away the hammer and sickle.
From the Red Star Hotel, their aerie on Budapest's Svabhegy Hill, the Olympic swimmers, divers and water polo players had heard the gunfire and seen the smoke rise. They were told of AVO snipers strafing civilians who had peacefully assembled outside Parliament, of citizens pulling down Stalin's statue in Heroes' Square, of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev accepting the revolutionaries' demands to withdraw Soviet tanks and troops. Even a few athletes caught the spirit, yanking the red star from the facade of the hotel.
So on the day the Hungarian team shipped out, Oct. 30, it seemed only a formality that the new, reformist prime minister, Imre Nagy, would declare the end of single-party rule. From their homes and training venues the Olympians picked their way to the buses, past charred automobile husks and uncollected corpses. For 18-year-old diver Joe Gerlach, the revolution had done nothing less than make him an Olympian. Why are we sending so many minders and hacks, freeloaders with dandruff on their lapels, to Australia? someone had asked. It's a new day! So Gerlach became one of 11 athletes subbed in for bureaucrats at the last minute. "My best friend asked if there was any chance I wouldn't be coming back," remembers fencer Daniel Magay. "I told him, 'No way.' We had a free Hungary."
But much more was happening on Oct. 30. As the Olympic buses headed out of the country, Soviet leaders were finalizing plans to send the tanks back in. Britain, France and Israel had just attacked Egypt to prevent the nationalization of the Suez Canal, ensuring that the world would be distracted when the U.S.S.R. invaded Hungary several days later. The athletes on the buses didn't know that their week of freedom was about to end. Nonetheless, Hungarians share an abiding dread born of centuries as a doormat to more powerful neighbors. You can hear their world-weariness in an old expression that alludes to the Turkish domination of Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the foreign occupiers would propose extortionate terms over postprandial coffee: "The black soup is still to come."
The Olympic delegation was to fly to Australia from Prague, but the pro-Moscow Czech government considered the Magyars to be carriers of a virus. As Hungarian officials spent a week trying to secure a French plane out, the Czechs quarantined the Olympians in a school outside the capital, with access only to sketchy news reports. Suspicion set in, then fears of the worst. "How are my parents?" water polo player Istvan Hevesi wrote in his journal on Nov. 7, the day the team was finally cleared to leave. "The Olympics, the whole thing has lost its importance, its beauty, because of what's happening back home."
In the postwar years Hungarian athletes had turned sports into rallies for national glory. Little Hungary had placed third in the medal count at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, behind the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. A year later Ferenc Puskas and Hungary's soccer team, the Golden Squad, so dominated England in a 6-3 victory at London's Wembley Stadium that English captain Billy Wright called them "the finest team ever to sort out successfully the intricacies of this wonderful game." After England lost 7-1 in the return match in 1954, forward Syd Owen pronounced the Hungarian players "people from outer space."
The black soup was served four days later, cold. When the Hungarian delegation touched down in Darwin, Australia, Miklos (Nick) Martin, a water polo player who read English, found a newspaper in the transit lounge and shared its reports: A quisling named Janos Kadar had cut a deal with Moscow to preside over a new puppet regime. Some 200,000 Soviet troops had flooded back in, killing thousands of Hungarians and routing Nagy's newborn government. Hevesi would later tell the makers of Freedom's Fury, the 2006 documentary about Hungary's '56 Olympic water polo victory over the Soviets, "By the time we got on the plane it had turned into a counterrevolution -- meaning they had begun to shoot us, goddamn them." The Hungarians had yet to reach Melbourne, and already they were asking questions that would haunt them for weeks: Are my family and friends safe? Have they escaped? What kind of country will be left to return to?
And: Should I go home at all?
Several hundred Hungarian émigrés turned out at Melbourne's Essendon Airport to greet the team. They tossed red, white and green bouquets and waved flags with the pre-Communist Kossuth crest, now adorned with a black mourning stripe. The delegation soon raised that new flag outside its quarters in the Olympic village. On Nov. 22 the U.S.S.R. took custody of Nagy, whom the Kadar regime would later execute; that same day Hungarian athletes turned their backs on the Soviets at the opening ceremonies.
The team's compound had already become a hothouse of angst and conflicting reports. Cables began to arrive from home, many over the signatures of relatives, imploring athletes to return. But these often raised suspicions: The family members might have failed to include a prearranged code or in a subsequent phone call might make exactly the opposite plea. "We heard the revolution had been put down," recalls Susie Ordogh Zimsen, then a 16-year-old swimmer, "and that they were scooping up youngsters on the street and sending them on Siberian vacations."
The extent of the carnage back home -- as many as 25,000 dead or wounded; ultimately some 20,000 arrests and hundreds of executions -- had only begun to emerge. The figure of more immediate concern was even harder to determine: Who were among the hundreds of thousands who had fled? "A great spiritual depression," as long jumper Olga Gyarmaty described it, afflicted the team, which wouldn't come close to duplicating its performance in Helsinki. But it won gold medals in gymnastics, fencing and, most famously, water polo.
With minutes to go in the semi-final between Hungary and the U.S.S.R., Soviet captain Valentin Prokopov drew the blood of Ervin Zador with a sucker punch. Hungarian fans rushed to the parapet that girdled the pool, forcing the referee to intervene and award Hungary a truncated 4-0 victory. The crowd at what came to be called the "blood in the water" match raised the same cry that had rung through Budapest a few weeks earlier: "Ruszkik haza! [Russians go home!]"
The water polo players, rallying to the realization that this was their last stand as a team, would beat Yugoslavia in the final. But most of the other Hungarian athletes, deprived of critical training time and preoccupied by events back home, saw their Olympics end in disappointment. "You go to the greatest competition in the world," recalls diver Frank Siak, "and all you're thinking about is a decision you'll be making that will affect the rest of your life."
For some, deciding to return home came relatively easily. Gymnast Olga Tass had a disabled daughter and swore by the care she received from her doctors in Hungary. Boxer Laszlo Papp, who won his third gold medal in three Olympics, had a wife, an 18-month-old son and the comfortable life of an Eastern bloc sports celebrity. For a few others, deciding to defect was just as easy. The Hungarian regime had targeted Magay's parents because of their extensive landholdings, and they were now squatters barred from working. The parents of canoeist Istvan Hernek had been detained by the AVO and his mother nearly beaten to death.
But for most of the Hungarian Olympians it was a much harder call. Swimmer Valeria Gyenge's fiancé had escaped and told her to wait for him in Melbourne, but her mother wailed through the phone line at the news that her little girl wouldn't be coming home. Gymnast Attila Takach cabled home asking if he should "visit Paola," who lived in Los Angeles, and his mother replied, "Send my love to Aunt Paola," giving him her blessing to leave. Nevertheless, "it was misery," Takach said a few weeks before his death at 82 in February 2011. "We didn't know what to decide. When the Sports Illustrated offer came through, many of us decided to go with that."
Several days after the Hungarians reached Melbourne, SI writer Whitney Tower had sent a memo to his boss, managing editor Sid James, proposing a daring operation. Tower was related by marriage to Hungary's exiled royal family, and one of his in-laws, a New York-based count named Anthony Szapary, hoped to bring Hungarian athletes from Melbourne to the U.S. as refugees. SI was then barely two years old and was alarming Time Inc. founder Henry Luce with its financial losses. But Luce valued the anti-Communist cause as much as profits. The company's flagship magazine, Time, would honor the Hungarian Freedom Fighter as its Man of the Year. It made perfect sense that Szapary and George Telegdy, the secretary of Hungary's sports federation, would try to enlist the magazine company in their efforts.
Time Inc. vice president C.D. Jackson endorsed the appeal as soon as it hit his desk. Jackson had served as a psychological warfare expert for the OSS during World War II and instantly grasped the operation's propaganda potential. One member of SI's Olympic contingent, writer Coles Phinizy, hadn't yet left for Australia, so on Nov. 19, after boarding a flight in New York City, he worked out a code for all cable communications during the operation (it was the Cold War, after all) and mailed it back to the office while stopping over in San Francisco. Phinizy used a proposed Australian Rules Football tour as his cover. A reference to "one full team" would mean 30 defectors; "one full team and six substitutes," therefore, was 36. "Football Federation" would stand for U.S. State Department. "Tour of more than a month" would denote U.S. permanent residency or citizenship. "Len Turner" was miler Laszlo Tabori; "George Kramer," water polo star Gyorgy Karpati; "Greg Turnbull," Count Szapary's fixer George Telegdy; and so on. Phinizy also carried a copy of Tower's memo outlining the operation and hand delivered it to the man in charge of SI's Melbourne Olympic coverage, assistant managing editor Andre Laguerre.
Perhaps no one had a better grasp of geopolitics, sports and the immigrant experience than Laguerre. The eldest child of a French diplomat and an upper-class Englishwoman, Laguerre had spent his teenage years in San Francisco, where he hung out at Pacific Coast League baseball games and worked as a copyboy at the Chronicle. In his 20s he covered Neville Chamberlain's sellout to Hitler in Munich for the French newspaper Paris-Soir. When Germany attacked France, Laguerre enlisted in the French army and was plucked, shrapnel in his neck, from the waters off Dunkirk. He eventually became press officer to Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the Free French in London, and after the war he joined the Time bureau there. By 1955, Winston Churchill was calling Laguerre the best political reporter in Britain.
Luce, who knew little about sports, insisted on having Laguerre at his elbow during ball games and horse races to explain the action. In March 1956, Luce asked him to come to New York to help run his struggling sports magazine. Laguerre was devastated. He loved the hurly-burly of overseas reporting, the proximity to power and great events. He agreed only out of loyalty to his boss. So Laguerre must have brightened when Phinizy reached Melbourne with his orders. Here was a chance for Laguerre to return to the action.
Three times Laguerre met with members of the Hungarian delegation: early one morning in the corner of a practice field, at midday in his hotel room and late at night at a house in the Melbourne suburbs. "While it was not for us to urge the decision itself," he explained in SI's Dec. 17 issue, "it seemed our moral responsibility to prevent any decision against going to the U.S. from being taken solely because of some relatively minor material difficulty which we could help overcome." After that first meeting Laguerre cabled New York: must report that some aussie footballers holding privileged jobs had most unamateur outlook and appear mainly interested in financial rewards. His observation foreshadowed the eventual decision of some defectors to return home and reclaim their roles as kept athletes in Hungary's state-supported system.
Another Laguerre telegram read, players' confidence in coach turnbull seems by no means unanimous. Telegdy wanted to restore the Hungarian monarchy. "We weren't communists," Nick Martin recalls, "but we weren't royalists either." At one point Telegdy recruited four Romanian Olympians of Hungarian descent to defect, prompting SI writer Roy Terrell to cable New York that "Turnbull" was gathering oppressed peoples like a dog gathers fleas.
As the Games wound down, Hungarian delegation chief Gyula Hegyi asked those who didn't plan to return home to let him know, so their flight bookings could be canceled. The hour had come. Young and single, Tabori, the runner, was guided by a telegram from his sister Elizabeth: situation very bad. do what you think is right. The night before the team was to leave, Tabori asked his coach, Mihaly Igloi, what he planned to do. Igloi walked away without saying a word. But Igloi had spent five years in Siberia after Russian soldiers grabbed him on a Budapest street. At the airport he told Tabori he too would be leaving and added, "Why don't we stick together?"
The women gymnasts won the team gold medal on the final day and had to choose their futures only hours after stepping off the podium. "Being so young, you don't think about the dangers," says one of them, Marta Nagy Wachter. "Today you'd linger over a decision for days or weeks. It's still amazing that we did it."
The first two to push off were, symbolically, the boatmen: rowing coach Zoltan Torok and coxswain Robert Zimonyi. On their way to the gate of the Olympic village they walked down a street called Liberty Parade -- "one of those dramatic coincidences which occasionally brighten the drab hues of reality," Laguerre noted. Whisked away in a sports car to a safe house in the Melbourne suburbs, they toasted the future over a bottle of Hungarian Egri Bikaver red.
Most of the defectors went to the airport to see off those who were flying back to Hungary. Balint Galantai, who would settle in Australia, cried as he kissed fellow wrestlers goodbye. An anguished young gymnast called the scene in the terminal "the funeral of Hungarian sport." Those staying serenaded those who were going back with the pre-Soviet anthem God Bless the Hungarian Nation.
The defectors were spooked by the Gruzia, a Soviet ship docked in Melbourne's harbor. "Russian athletes would be taken from the podium to the ship," Hernek recalls. Australian federal security police threw a cordon around the Hungarians' quarters until the Gruzia pulled up anchor.
Then, on Dec. 18, not quite a month after Tower's memo was delivered, word came: The U.S. State Department had granted asylum to 34 Hungarians and Telegdy's four Romanians -- one full team and eight substitutes. (At least a dozen more Hungarian athletes and coaches would defect to other countries.) To transport them to the U.S., Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe provided the clipper Trade Wind, which would leave Melbourne on Dec. 23.
If freedom and resettlement had been the sole purpose of the operation, the defectors could have been placed anywhere in the West -- even Melbourne, with its Hungarian émigré community. But Luce and Jackson, Szapary and Telegdy, agreed: So much had been done to bring the Hungarians to the U.S. that their arrival should be leveraged for full propaganda value. For that, SI had a plan.
Before the Trade Wind touched down in California, Martin stood in the aisle to address the team: Forget how it's done in Hungary. We'll be in America, where things are done differently.
"He said we should try to fit in, whatever the situation," Ordogh Zimsen remembers. "I thought it was a marvelous piece of advice."
Invited into the cockpit, Martin could hardly believe the scene laid out before him. San Francisco shimmered in sunshine on the day before Christmas. Gymnast Andrea Bodo Schmid-Shapiro recalls the huge Christmas tree in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, where the delegation stayed. Tabori went for a run in Golden Gate Park. Zador got a ride over the Bay Bridge in a white Cadillac convertible, top down, to a reception in the Oakland hills. "The lights, the car, the wind in your face, it was enormous," Zador recalled before he died at 77 in April. "I said, 'This is where I'm gonna die.' "
"The deluge of new impressions," fencer Eugene Hamori adds, "didn't leave much room for sentimentality."
Three days later the party flew to New York City. Just before New Year's, Siak, the diver, who hadn't been able to reach his family before departing from Budapest, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. His father and brothers saw him on TV in Canada, to which they had escaped, and rushed down to see him. "I decided for sure not to go back only when I heard from them," Siak says.
In early January the Olympians embarked on SI's Hungarian Athletes' Freedom Tour. Beyond keeping the Hungarian crisis in the news, each stopover raised money for refugee relief and gave the young magazine a hit of publicity. The tour featured two troupes -- one for aquatics, the other for gymnasts and fencers -- whose members competed in exhibitions. (Tabori and Igloi joined the U.S. indoor track circuit instead.) Over 10 weeks the Hungarians met Louis Armstrong backstage in Miami Beach and President Eisenhower in the White House; tried waterskiing in Orlando and inspected an auto plant in Detroit; saw the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon and the Las Vegas strip. "We'd grown up in an isolated society where you didn't express your feelings, and here people were literally warm, hugging us," remembers Nagy Wachter. "It's one of the reasons I decided to stay in the States."
To tart up their exhibitions, the water polo players might toss an SI minder into the pool, while the fencers did a send-up of Hollywood sword fighting scenes, with gymnasts cast as damsels in distress. "It was a fabulous time," says Martin, "and for once in our lives we didn't have to worry about the score."
Each athlete had been handed something called A Practical Handbook of the English Language; upon meeting Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, one mischievous Hungarian decided to drop some of the book's practice dialogue on Hizzoner: "My name is Mr. Brown. How do you do? Lend me a hammer, please."
SI made it clear that it would help anyone return to Hungary at any time. But two water polo players decided to take matters into their own hands, which led to the most cloak-and-dagger- moment of the tour. Word had reached one of them, Laszlo Jeney, that his wife back home was pregnant; the other, Karpati, was engaged to a Miss Hungary. When the tour passed through Washington, D.C., the two athletes quietly arranged to meet the Hungarian consul at the Willard Hotel. But before they could enter the lobby, they were detained by U.S. agents. "They asked us to state our business," Karpati remembers. "We explained we wanted to go home." They were both deported before they could redefect, but the Feds made sure they left with a favorable final impression. "They flew us back first class," recalls Karpati, who says that all along he and Jeney had wanted only a sightseeing tour of the U.S. "We were worried what the conditions would be like after the revolution and what our reception would be. The reception was good because we were champions. It was good propaganda: See, these guys who won gold medals came home."
No one on the tour begrudged anyone else's decision to return. "Those of us who stayed for good understood," Hamori says. "We even sympathized with the logistical and political acrobatics the others had to go through, brownnosing the sports commissars to convince them that they hadn't really intended to defect."
The tour ended in mid-March back in San Francisco, after some 8,000 miles and 59 cities. It had more than paid for itself, leaving a surplus of $10,000 ($80,000 today) for refugee relief. The younger athletes sifted through college scholarship offers; the others had jobs lined up. Each of them had a small grubstake from saving per diems, as well as possessions collected during a shopping spree in a department store, where each was invited to fill a suitcase with anything but jewelry. "Most of us wanted to go to California," Nagy Wachter remembers. "California had a magic."
Before they scattered, the Hungarians returned to the top of the Mark Hopkins. My God, Takach thought as he looked out over the bay, we have seen so much of the world.
Sit down with a surviving '56er today, and you're sure to hear a rhapsody about San Francisco in its brilliant winter light, but you're also likely to hear of nightmares. Over the past 55 years Magay and Hernek, Gerlach and Schmid-Shapiro have all dreamed that they're back in Hungary and can't get out.
The flop sweat is only temporary, for life in the U.S. has been strikingly good for the defectors. Nearly all who stayed have prospered. How they made their way in the new world roughly conforms to their disciplines. Most of the fencers and gymnasts -- sensible, calculating, mindful of balance -- capitalized on those college scholarships, and many earned science and engineering degrees. The swimmers and divers tended to jump right into the figurative pool. Accustomed to the stray elbow, the water polo players took their dunkings and bobbed back up. "It's lucky we were so young," says swimmer Katherine Szoke Domyan, who's still married to water polo player Arpad Domyan. "Young people can do anything. Or so I discovered when I wasn't so young anymore."
International Olympic Committee rules required anyone who switched nationalities to wait five years before competing under a new flag, and that ended further Olympic hopes for many of the Hungarians. "I thought I was going to conquer the world," says Tabori. "It turns out the world conquered me."
But most of those for whom a sports career was paramount had not defected, and eight on the Freedom Tour shortly went back to Hungary. When they arrived, "the only thing people kept asking was, Why the hell did you come back?" said runner Istvan Roszavolgyi, who returned directly from Melbourne. (He died in January 2012.)
The truth, however, is that Hungarians enjoyed relatively more liberties under the so-called Goulash Communism of the 1960s and '70s, when their country was allowed to become what was described as "the merriest barracks in the prison camp," because Moscow feared more unrest. That's one reason defectors' relatives back home suffered few reprisals. Another is the sheer number of people, athletes or not, who fled. "Take 250,000 and multiply it by three or four or five relatives who stayed behind," Takach explained, "and it would have been impractical to persecute them all."
Soon after Ordogh Zimsen's defection, her mother was summoned to the sports ministry to provide an explanation. Ilona Ordogh went on the offensive: "Yes, and where is my daughter? I put her in your care, and you didn't bring her back to me!" The bureaucrats didn't have much of a response.
Once defectors earned U.S. citizenship, they could go back to visit their families, for the Hungarian government honored the passports of U.S. tourists. Meanwhile aging parents often received permission to visit the U.S., and several permanently joined their children. "Once you reached retirement age, you just sucked up a pension," explained Zador, who brought his parents over in the late '50s. After several months of complaining about laid-back attitudes and disrespectful children, they returned to Budapest. Within days -- "after dealing again with no hot water," their son says, "and lugging blocks of ice to the refrigerator on the fourth floor" -- they begged him to take them back, promising never to complain again. They spent the rest of their lives in California.
In 2006 the makers of Freedom's Fury arranged a water polo reunion in Budapest for eight Hungarians and four of the vanquished Soviets. Outwardly, bonhomie prevailed. "They were pawns just like we were," Zador said of the Soviets. But Zador detected a chill from Karpati and Jeney, his teammates who left the tour early. "Karpati and I had been very close," he says. "Same with Jeney. I'd have loved for them to say, 'Come, see my home, see how I live.' I wanted to find out what it'd been like in Hungary. They came to all the scheduled events, but then they'd leave."
But most of those who returned to live out politically ambiguous lives in Hungary carried the spirit of '56 with them. Before leaving Melbourne, Jeney took the pre-Communist flag with the black mourning stripe that had flown over the Hungarians' compound and hid it in the casing of one of the team's canoes. He squirreled it away in his home for more than 30 years. Today the flag is on display at a Budapest primary school.
After the reunion, Zador and Martin rented a car and spent 10 days vagabonding incognito through the countryside. "We were just American tourists, talking to people in English, paying in dollars," Zador said. "We didn't tell anyone we were Hungarian, and people freely expressed their opinions.
"When I left, there were maybe 10 cars in Hungary. Now Budapest was wall-to-wall cars, graffiti, buildings turned gray from pollution. People didn't seem happy. There's always been someone pounding on that country. They're survivors."
Hungarian émigrés are survivors too. Why have so many prospered in strange and daunting environments, as if, in the words of journalist Kati Marton, they carry "magic in their pockets"? Another émigré writer, Arthur Koestler, suggests an answer in Hungarians' linguistic and ethnic apartness from other Europeans: "a hopeless solitude" that "feeds their creativity, their desire for achieving."
"Hungarians are romantic," Schmid Shapiro says, "or we never would have gone up against the big Russians."
Hungarian journalist Dezso Dobor, who spent years debriefing '56ers for a 2006 book and TV special called It Began As an Olympics, says their defection "wasn't so much a political choice as the attraction of the unknown. America was seen as a paradise, where the fences around houses were made of sausages and chocolate. The ones who stayed were smart and talented. They made it work."
Made it work with work, in fact. Karpati and Jeney "realized they'd have to work here, where in Hungary they had all the benefits of the state," Gerlach says. "They discovered that here, gold doesn't grow on trees. Whereas we said, 'Right, it doesn't. You've got to go earn it.' "
Lend me a hammer, please, indeed.