Some people say you can never go home again. That is not always true. You can go home again, just know that nothing will be the same. This was the situation facing members of Hungary’s Olympic Water Polo team in 1956. They would face a decision when the Olympics ended. By the time the Water Polo competition in Melbourne began, almost two months had passed since the Hungarian Revolution had ended in defeat. The passage of time was not enough to heal the wounds felt by members of the team who had left family and friends behind in a country where freedom was crushed beneath the weight of Soviet tanks. All were torn between returning to an authoritarian Hungary or defecting abroad.
In retrospect, the decision seems a no brainer. Why would anyone want to return to an authoritarian country when the prospect of freedom was as close as the nearest embassy. By leaving, they would risk never seeing family or friends again. Their hopes of playing water polo in international competitions would fade. Training for the highest levels of competition had been all these athletes knew. They would also lose the fringe benefits (housing, cars) that came with being an elite Olympic athlete in a communist country. Thus, a decision to defect would not be an easy one, but before that could or would happen there was a gold medal to win.
Grudge Match – Fighting for Supremacy
In the 1956 Olympics, Hungary’s Water Polo team may have been the best in the world and favored to win the gold medal, but they would later admit to being distracted in the early rounds of the Olympic competition. That did not stop them from implementing a new strategy. The Hungarians packed into a zone on defense, then as soon as an opportunity presented itself, they would launch a ferocious counterattack. This strategy proved incredibly successful as they won their first four games by a combined score of 20 – 3 to get them through to the semifinals. The team’s newest star, Ervin Zador shined. He was a youthful addition to the veteran squad. Picked up from a local team, Zador quickly proved to be one of the world’s top players. The Hungarians would need Zador and all their skill as they prepared to face off against the Soviet Union’s team.
The Soviets were newcomers to the top echelons of the sport. They had not come anywhere close to contending for a medal at the 1952 Olympics, finishing seventh that year. The Soviet team had managed to improve since then by studying the Hungarians. The team traveled to Hungary, where they learned from the world’s best. This had already led to a fierce rivalry. Six months before the Olympics, Hungary played the Soviet team in an away game that turned into a brawl, both in the pool and the locker room afterwards. The enmity between the two teams grew after the Hungarian Revolution. The Olympic semifinal between the two teams would be a grudge match. Adding to the tension was a Hungarian expatriate community in Melbourne that was ready to pour vitriol on the Soviets as soon as they entered the pool.
A Pool of Blood – Violent Tendencies
Ironically, while the Soviet team carried the label of bad guys going into the game, the Hungarians would be more pugnacious to start. Part of this was personal, the other part strategic. The Hungarian players planned to use insults that would infuriate the Soviet players. Their reasoning was that if the Soviets got angry, then they would lose focus on the match. The Hungarian players had an advantage in this respect. Schools in Hungary taught the Russian language. Thus, the Hungarian could taunt the Russians using their own words. The Hungarian strategy worked from the outset. The game had barely begun when a Russian player reacted to the barrage of verbal taunts. He would be the first of many players to spend time in the penalty box. While the Hungarians referred to their opponents using a range of expletives, the Soviets called the Hungarians “traitors.” The physical nature of the match was difficult for the referees to control. All they could see was what went on above the waterline which at times turned into a near melee. Under the water, players engaged in brutal kicks and punches.
The Hungarian squad stuck to their strategy and outplayed the Soviets, scoring four goals, including two by Zador, while allowing none. With a minute left in the game, Zador heard a whistle blow. When he turned to look at the referee, Soviet player Valentin Prokopov, who he had been trading insults with throughout the match, slugged him. The punch knocked Zador momentarily senseless. Blood started streaming from a cut just above his eye and poured into the water. The pro-Hungarian crowd outraged at this blatant act of violence charged out of the stands and surrounded the pool. Suddenly, the referees had a near riot on their hands. A crowd of 5,000 angry spectators was seeing red, both literally and figuratively. The referees called the game over. Police then escorted the Soviet players to safety. Meanwhile, a photographer snapped a picture of Zador with blood around his eye and streaming down his face. This iconic image damned the Soviets as the bad guys when it came to their treatment of Hungarians.
Zador’s Fate – Magyar Martyrdom
Ervin Zador instantly became a martyr for the Hungarian cause. This would do nothing to heal the pain he felt in the coming days. He lost his opportunity to play in the gold medal match against Yugoslavia due to the injury. He could only watch as Hungary eked out a 2 -1 win to take home the gold medal. The only problem was that half of the Hungarian Water Polo team and associated delegation would not be returning home. Zador was one of those. At the gold medal ceremony, tears ran from his injured eye. Soon thereafter, he emigrated to the United States. Cold War conflicts cut short a brilliant water polo. The Hungarians may have lost the revolution, but they fared better in the Olympics. Their 1956 Water Polo team not only won a gold medal, in the process they won over the free world. For that, they will always be champions.
Click here for: After the Revolution – Hungary vs. the Soviet Union: Blood in the Water (Part One)