Blood in the Waters at the Melbourne Olympics
Throughout the Cold War, tensions between the Soviets and other nations frequently spilled over into the Olympics. This was especially true with the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics which were held from November 22 – December 8, 1956.
In October 1956, a popular uprising in Hungary brought down the communist government and forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Budapest. The quick success of the uprising provided a brief period of hope of liberation from communist domination. The Soviets, however, merely regrouped and on November 4 one thousand Soviet tanks returned to Budapest to brutally crush the rebellion. Approximately 4,000 Hungarians are believed to been killed and another 200,000 fled.
At the time [of the crackdown], the Hungarian water polo team was in a mountain training camp above Budapest. They were able to hear the gunfire and see smoke rising. The players were the defending Olympic champions; with the Summer Olympics in Melbourne two months away, they were moved into Czechoslovakia to avoid being caught in the revolution. The players only learned of the true extent of the uprising and the subsequent crackdown after arriving in Australia and they were all anxious for news of friends and family.
By the start of the Olympics, the uprising had been suppressed, and many players saw the Olympics as a way to salvage pride for their country. “We felt we were playing not just for ourselves but for our whole country” said Zádor after the match. The “Blood In The Water” match was played in front of a partisan crowd bolstered with expatriate Hungarians (many of whom had been in the boxing arena before to see the Hungarian László Papp win his third gold medal) as well as Australians and Americans who detested their Cold War Soviet rivals.
”The Hungarians have long been among the top Water Polo teams in Olympic competition. They left for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics before the Soviet crackdown and then faced the Soviet Union in a bloody and dramatic semi-final match that almost resulted in a riot.
In the morning before the start, the Hungarians had evolved a strategy to taunt the Russians, whose language they had been forced to study in school. In the words of Zádor: “We had decided to try and make the Russians angry to distract them.”
From the beginning, kicks and punches were exchanged. At one point the Hungarian captain, Dezső Gyarmati, punched a Russian; it was caught on film. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Zádor scored two goals to ‘Hajrá Magyarok!’ (Go Hungarians!) cheers of the crowd.
Hungary was leading 4–0 in the final minutes. Zádor was marking Valentin Prokopov with whom he had verbal exchanges, such as abusing his family. Prokopov struck him, causing a bleeding gash. Zádor left the pool, and his bleeding was the final straw for a crowd already in frenzy. Many angry spectators jumped onto the concourse beside the water, shook their fists, shouted abuse and spat at the Russians. To avoid a riot, police entered the arena with one minute to go and shepherded the crowd away.
Pictures of Zádor’s injuries were published around the world, leading to the “Blood in the Water” name, although reports that the water actually turned red were an exaggeration. Zádor said his only thought was whether he would be able to play the next match.
Hungary was declared the winner since they had been leading and then beat Yugoslavia 2–1 in the final to win their fourth Olympic gold medal. Zádor’s injury would force him to miss the match. After the event was completed, he and some of his team-mates sought asylum in the West, rather than returning to live in a Hungary under a firmly pro-Soviet regime.