Held up against our history of mediocrity in international play, the U.S. water polo team's performance in the Tungsram Cup in Budapest last week was as salutary as an extended dip in one of that city's medicinal baths. Although defeated by the Soviets 10-7 in the meet's big match, the Americans beat six other highly ranked national teams and put the final competitive edge on a training regimen that's geared to produce a gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics.
A gold medal for the U.S. in water polo? This is a nation that has never taken better than Olympic bronze—in 1924, 1932 and 1972, to be exact. Unless, of course, you count the gold medal at the 1904 Games in St. Louis. That year, no water polo teams from foreign countries showed up.
U.S. head coach Monte Nitzkowski has been pointing toward L.A. ever since nine of the players selected for the 1980 Olympic squad decided to try again in '84. That alone broke with the American water polo tradition of hanging up the ol' Speedos the day after the Olympics. An even bigger break with tradition occurred late last year when the USOC and other sponsors agreed to come up with the $160,000 that would allow the U.S. players to take leaves from their jobs and train five days a week, as other top international teams do. On March 5 the squad started two-a-days at its training facility in Long Beach, Calif. In two tours of Europe since then, the U.S. has gone 14-1-1 against the best national teams in the world.
Both the tie and the loss, however, came against the U.S.S.R. Based on their all-winning record at Budapest, the Soviets hold a slight edge over the Americans—who were 6-1—in consistency and versatility, if not pure ability. The gap seemed to be closing, but a boycott once again has denied the teams a chance to meet in the Olympics.
"It's a downer," said driver Doug Burke, 27, a holdover from 1980. "But nothing is going to tarnish a medal now."
Just to make sure the 1984 Tungsram Cup, which was sponsored by and named after a Hungarian lamp company, would not be regarded as the real water polo Olympics, the U.S. contingent in Budapest took pains to explain that the team was tired from four months of hard training (true), that its lineup was still unsettled (partly true) and that winning the tournament was not that important (doubtful). "No one is going to remember who won the Tungsram Cup if we win the [Olympic] gold medal," said driver Tim Shaw, a silver medalist in the 400 freestyle at the '76 Olympics. In their first four Tungsram games, the Americans beat Yugoslavia 6-5 and Hungary—the second-place finisher in the 1982 Worlds—8-7, and dominated Cuba 8-5 and the Netherlands 11-5.
The Soviets made it clear from the start that winning the Tungsram was serious business. "This is like the gold medal for us," said Georgi Mshvenieradze, the U.S.S.R.'s nearly unstoppable 220-pound two-meter man.
Before the U.S.- U.S.S.R. match, driver Kevin Robertson, 25, of Concord, Calif. said, "It would be nice to win, but it won't ruin anything if we don't. We have to remember we're in training." But veteran driver Joe Vargas, 28, betrayed some honest emotion when he said, "Beating the Russians is the most fun you can have in water polo."
Apparently the crowd at the Bela Komjadi Sportuszoda agreed, because it cheered, though not too loudly, for the Americans. The U.S. jumped out to a 4-0 lead with its combination of fine goal-keeping by Craig Wilson, 27, and high-speed transitions led by Robertson.
But after Wilson let a ball that he had both hands on slip into the goal, the Soviets took over. They slowed the tempo, put the clamps on the Americans' set offense and converted a couple of turnovers into fast-break goals. After tying the score 4-4 at the half, they pinpointed a series of long shots past a bewildered Wilson. Toward the end of the third quarter, the Soviets were up 10-6, and the tired Americans could have used a time-out. Trouble is, there are no timeouts in water polo.