It was an Olympic event that had repercussions far beyond the
final score--and it was less a game than a bloody war.
The Melbourne Games were the first to be held south of the
equator, and because of the reversal of seasons there, these
Summer Olympics took place in late November and early December.
The late start created some inconvenience for visiting
competitors, most of whom had to alter their training routines.
But no other country's athletes endured the agony inflicted on
the team from Hungary, which left behind a homeland torn asunder
by revolution and foreign invasion.
On Oct. 23, 1956, a courageous band of Hungarian freedom
fighters revolted against the Soviet-dominated Communist regime
in Budapest and attempted to supplant it with a democratic
government. Then, on Nov. 4, some 200,000 Soviet troops poured
across the Hungarian border and, with tanks rumbling through the
streets of Budapest, brutally crushed the incipient revolution.
The defending Olympic champion Hungarian water polo team,
sequestered in a mountain training camp at the time of the
insurrection, could hear gunfire and see smoke rising from
burning buildings in the beleaguered capital city below. But
before the players could determine what was actually happening,
they were whisked across the border to Czechoslovakia and
dispatched from there on the long journey to Australia. The
athletes learned of the revolution's failure en route and
arrived in Melbourne both outraged by the Soviet occupation and
tormented by worries over friends and family. Many of the
players vowed never to return home.
July 27, 1996
In this agitated state, they began the defense of their Olympic
title and of what now seemed of much greater importance to
them--their nation's honor. They swept past four preliminary
opponents and then, in the semifinals on Dec. 6, met the team
from the Soviet Union. The Hungarians saw in this game a chance
to avenge their homeland. "We felt we were playing not just for
ourselves but for every Hungarian," 20-year-old star forward
Ervin Zador said afterward. "This game was the only way we could
Water polo can be a rough game, but no game in the history of
the sport could match this one for unrestrained ferocity. The
two teams grappled from the opening whistle both under and above
the water as hundreds of Hungarian expatriates in the crowd of
5,500 jeered the Soviets, waved the flag of freedom adopted by
the revolutionaries and urged on their countrymen with cries of
"Hajra Magyarok!" ("Go Hungarians!")
In scoring the first goal, Dezso Gyarmati of Hungary, who would
eventually win medals in five Olympics, nearly KO'd his Soviet
opponent. Minutes later, the USSR's Vyacheslav Kurennoi was sent
to the penalty box for slugging. Then the Soviet Union's Boris
Markarov and Hungary's Antal Bolvari went at it. It was open
warfare thereafter, with players from both teams trading blows
However, the avenging Hungarians did all the scoring, and they
led 4-0 with only a minute to play. At that point Zador, who had
scored twice, looked away from the man guarding him, Valentin
Prokopov, to respond to a referee's whistle. Prokopov rose out
of the water and sucker-punched Zador hard above the right eye.
Blood streamed from the wound into the pool. When angry
Hungarians scrambled out of the stands, apparently eager to join
the fight, officials called the game. The Soviet team was led by
police through a cordon of cursing spectators to the safety of
its locker room.
Exhilarated by their victory over the USSR, the Hungarians went
on to beat Yugoslavia 2-1 for their fourth Olympic water polo
gold medal. (They eventually won two more, in 1964 and '76; the
water polo final will be played tonight at the Georgia Tech
Aquatic Center.) And as the team mounted the victory stand for
the medal ceremony, Zador burst into tears. "I was crying for
Hungary," he said, "because I knew I wouldn't be returning home."
Indeed, fully half of the 100-member Hungarian Olympic
delegation, including Zador, defected after the Melbourne Games.