"...These men and women were subjected to no pressure or propaganda. They had no contact with any U.S. official. They sought out representatives of Sports Illustrated...and asked what Sports Illustrated would do to help.... "
Less than 48 hours before the Melbourne flame was officially doused, two men in ill-fitting civilian clothes walked for the last time through the Olympic Village. It was dusk, they spoke no word, and they trod—by one of those dramatic coincidences which occasionally brighten the drab hues of reality—a road named Liberty Parade.
In silence they were let through the guarded exit and in silence they climbed into a car waiting for them, by agreement, at the flagpole from which flew the Hungarian flag. They were driven to a private home on the outskirts of Melbourne.
The two men were named Zoltàn T√∂r√∂k and Róbert Zimonyi. They were the first Hungarians to make the break from their teams, their families and their homes in the hope of finding a new life in a country which, for 10 years, their own government's propaganda had vainly sought to depict as the epitome of selfishness and vicious exploitation—the United States of America.
December 17, 1956
Although some medals were still to be awarded and the colorful, traditional closing ceremonies remained to be performed in the presence of bigwigs like the Duke of Edinburgh and Avery Brundage, the departure of those two men marked the real beginning of the end of the XVI Olympiad.
For three weeks political and national differences had been submerged for the greater and more immaculate glory of sport. Now the Hungarians, before all others, were feeling free to consider themselves as individuals instead of athletes bound by the Olympic oath and spirit. Others had already taken the same decision as the first pair but had to wait before implementing it. Thus, minutes after the Hungarian gymnasts had made their last public appearance (their women, according to non-Russian judges, were the best of all), the entire team was similarly whisked away from the West Melbourne Stadium to a safe and secret destination. Some of the all-conquering water polo players had hardly dried themselves and tucked their gold medals into their pockets before they were unobtrusively driven off. The sabre fencers, also gold medalists, followed suit.
Two transport planes had been chartered to take the Hungarian delegation back to Budapest, and many athletes hesitated until the last minute over a decision as tough as any to face a man in an average lifetime.
It must not be wondered at that all have not jumped at the chance of breaking for freedom. It is not that Hungarian athletes are Communists; few of them seem to be. In some cases, straightforward self-interest introduced the element of doubt. Olympic champions are important people in countries behind the Iron Curtain, relatively much more important than they are in free countries. They have assured, privileged positions involving little or no work outside their training which guarantees them a standard of living far above the average in Red-dominated lands. On our side of the fence they would find freedom and opportunity but in most cases they would have to work hard for a living in strange surroundings and possibly at unfamiliar tasks. Most, though, were held back by thoughts of their families and dependents. Even if relatives were not victimized as a result of an athlete's escape, many would be deprived of their men's support, and that at a time when Hungary is suffering desperate poverty. (The Communists in Budapest sent numerous telegrams to Hungarian athletes in Melbourne imploring them to come home which were signed with the names of wives or other relatives. These the athletes recognized as phony, either because they had already received smuggled messages which advised the contrary or because the cables were not sent in some simple code on which they had agreed with their families before leaving.)
The Hungarian delegation in Melbourne numbered around 170. Perhaps 60 of these were officials, including secret police. Of the 110 athletes and coaches, about 55 have decided to take the risk of choosing freedom. The majority of these 55—about 35 of them—want to go to the U.S.
These men and women are subjected to no pressure or propaganda. They had no contact with any U.S. official. They sought out representatives of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
Three times—early in the morning in a remote corner of a deserted training ground, in the middle of the busy luncheon hour in my hotel room, late at night in a friendly home outside the city—I met Hungarian athletes and coaches, each time at their request, and was asked what SPORTS ILLUSTRATED would do to help them.
To all I replied that, in the case of athletes or coaches who decided to apply for admittance to the U.S., SPORTS ILLUSTRATED would be happy and proud to facilitate their transportation and entry, to sponsor a tour of American cities, and to do all in its power to aid in arranging the permanent settlement of individual athletes. It is fair to say that our offer powerfully influenced many Hungarian decisions. While it was not for us to urge the decision itself, 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. Now we can as fairly trust that those who freely decided to come were wisely and happily inspired.
A score of Hungarian athletes have chosen to seek asylum in other countries for reasons easily understandable. A few prefer France or Italy because they are free countries close to their homeland. Mihaly Igloi, the internationally famous athletic coach and the Svengali of the Hungarian track squad, and Làszió Tàbori, the sub-four-minute miler, hesitate between North and South America. Istvàn Rózsa-V√∂lgyi, another great miler and like Tàbori world famous, endured agonies of uncertainty and hourly changed his mind. No one will mock his indecision. He finally agreed to return to Budapest.
The pair which made the first-night escape from the Olympic Village apparently never had any doubts. Zoltàn T√∂r√∂k, a big, gray-haired man of 57 with the farseeing blue eyes of a sailor, is Hungary's chief rowing coach. This was his fourth Olympics as competitor or coach. A native of Budapest, T√∂r√∂k has never visited the U.S. and has no relatives there, but he has made friends with Jack Kelly and hopes of find a home in Philadelphia. "I decided to try to get to America when I was with the team in Prague," he said.
I asked T√∂r√∂k why he had not tried to get away when he had left Hungary on previous occasions. "This last revolt of the people gave me the impulse. It made me feel we could be free men again," he said.
His companion, 39-year-old Róbert Zimonyi, coxswain in the Hungarian four-oars, bronze medalist at the London Games of 1948 and a Hungarian national champion for 22 years, feels much the same way. He said, with all the fire his 114-pound frame could muster, "I want to go to America to learn and to teach freedom. I have a mother and sister in Hungary. I will send them money. I do not fear reprisals against them. Too many are leaving Hungary. There is too much disorganization. I want to live in America, but I want to go home when Hungary is free."
Most of them spoke with the same simplicity. A woman athlete, Olga Gyarmati, a striking, dark-eyed blonde who won the broad jump gold medal in the 1948 Games, talked of the "great spiritual depression" which had prevented her from performing at her best in Melbourne. She spoke to me just a few minutes after she had made up her mind. "Home, I am a clerk. I do not know what I shall do when I arrive in America. I shall look."
There are a few whose nationalistic role in the recent turmoil in Hungary has made them afraid to return. Such, by his own statement, is the most important (in an official sense) defector of all. This is Làszló Nadori, chief of staff of the Hungarian Sports Ministry and one of the two secretaries of the Hungarian Olympic Committee present in Melbourne. Nadori, a personable and evidently brilliant young man of 33, who speaks English, French, German, Dutch and Polish ("I learned them all from books"), describes his official functions as that of coordinator of all Hungarian sports events. In the U.S., says Nadori, he wants to eschew politics and "live in silence." He wants to pursue studies in a postgraduate course at Springfield College, where he has a friend.
Thus the Melbourne Games which had begun in the shadow of the Hungarian tragedy end with a dramatic reminder of that same tragedy; yet the Games have run their course, swept along by the tremendous wave of Australian enthusiasm, almost entirely free of disagreeable incident. Only in the closing days did the strain begin to show. Soviet water polo players whispered "fascists" at their Hungarian rivals (who thrashed them 4-0), and a bloody fist fight ensued. At the sabre fencing between Russians and Hungarians a partisan crowd shouted for the latter and booed the former, but in general neither the Russians nor anyone else can complain of the applause they got from Australian crowds.
The third week of the Olympics always comes as something of an anticlimax after the crowded excitement of the track and field events, but the "fringe" sports—which are not on the fringe at all for many countries—provided good entertainment for consistently appreciative crowds. Fencing, watched by people who mostly knew nothing about the sport, proved as popular as anything; the noise (fencers shout when they think they have touched their opponent) and the rhubarbs considerably animated the proceedings. A fencing rhubarb, of course, is a relatively gentlemanly affair. The protesting fencer whips off his mask (faster even than a catcher) and stands rigidly at attention, gazing appealingly but in silence at the referee. Gymnastics also were well liked, particularly the women's brand; almost all women gymnasts are attractive. One Australian paper was even moved to complain about the "immodesty" of Olympic women's apparel and to publish in support of their view a pleasant picture of the photogenic U.S. gymnast, Sandra Ruddick.
Field hockey was duly won by India but after an unexpectedly difficult final, 1-0 victory over Pakistan—and this only when most of the Indians discarded their shoes and played in bare feet. Cycling brought gold medals to countries where it is a major sport: France, Italy and Australia. Soccer, which is not the most popular form of football here, was followed by sizable attendances. The Russians won the tournament from the Yugoslavs but were lucky to reach the final, being fortunate to beat Bulgaria in the semifinal round. Swimming is a major passion in this country and Australia took top honors. Australia, in fact, has done very well in these Olympics and by any sensible evaluation of performance comes out third best behind the U.S. and Russia and ahead of many countries with larger populations.
Every Olympic program carried the haughty mention, "In the Olympic Games there is no scoring by countries." It might have been added that no system of national" point-scoring makes any sense. Russia won more gold medals (37) than the U.S. (32), but that also is meaningless. (How could it be otherwise when the 10-event decathlon rates one gold medal and Greco-Roman wrestling gets eight?)
It is possible to say that certain countries have been notably successful. After the trio mentioned above, those particularly deserving of congratulation are Sweden, Italy; Germany, Hungary, Britain and Rumania. Avery Brundage told a press conference that study is being given to a reorganization of the Olympic program which would better balance the importance of events and distribution of medals, and also which would prevent the fall-off in interest which comes in the third week.
In a private interview Brundage voiced some more definite opinions. He waxed lyrical about Melbourne's success. "It has been a great festival of the youth of the world, from countries involved in cold and hot wars, from countries which do not even maintain diplomatic relations with each other. There was a good deal of apathy in Australia about the Games at first. Now look at it! Enthusiasm has captured the whole continent. This place will never be the same again."
Brundage feels the U.S. is too keen on mere competition, too slow to recognize the international value of the Olympics. "An outlook stemming from college football has poisoned our whole sports program." He quoted a passage from TIME's recent cover story on Parry O'Brien which described how the shotput champion's life was made easy at USC and offered the opinion that "if some European country cared to take up this incident we should have trouble in preventing O'Brien from being deprived of his amateur status. Sometimes I think we are worse than the Russians." Then he quickly returned to the triumph of Melbourne and proudly revealed that the International Olympic Committee has been recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Pride also is the keynote of the editorial in The Age, Melbourne's leading newspaper, which announces the end of "seven years of planning and 16 all-too-brief days of action.... It is a long while since animosities have been so intense and inflamed as they are today and it would not have been surprising if these had been reflected on the playing field. There can be no perfect Games until there are perfect people, but we have watched a sincere attempt to achieve this human ideal."
Big words, yet perhaps not too big for the occasion. A more modest way of putting the same thought might be to say that for nearly three weeks several hundreds of thousands of us have had a wonderful respite from the world's headaches. We have had color and achievement, rivalry and chivalry, jest and muted tragedy. It has been a magnificent show—and now to Rome where, says Avery Brundage, preparations are already so advanced that the Games could be held the day after tomorrow.
Well, the day after tomorrow is 1960, and a lot of water will have flowed under a lot of bridges before the XVII Olympiad reaches the banks of the Tiber. The Romans have the habit of doing something well when they want to, but they will have to do supremely well to beat Melbourne 1956.