The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Olympians (cont.)
The extent of the carnage back home -- as many as 25,000 dead or wounded; ultimately some 20,000 arrests and hundreds of executions -- had only begun to emerge. The figure of more immediate concern was even harder to determine: Who were among the hundreds of thousands who had fled? "A great spiritual depression," as long jumper Olga Gyarmaty described it, afflicted the team, which wouldn't come close to duplicating its performance in Helsinki. But it won gold medals in gymnastics, fencing and, most famously, water polo.
With minutes to go in the semi-final between Hungary and the U.S.S.R., Soviet captain Valentin Prokopov drew the blood of Ervin Zador with a sucker punch. Hungarian fans rushed to the parapet that girdled the pool, forcing the referee to intervene and award Hungary a truncated 4-0 victory. The crowd at what came to be called the "blood in the water" match raised the same cry that had rung through Budapest a few weeks earlier: "Ruszkik haza! [Russians go home!]"
The water polo players, rallying to the realization that this was their last stand as a team, would beat Yugoslavia in the final. But most of the other Hungarian athletes, deprived of critical training time and preoccupied by events back home, saw their Olympics end in disappointment. "You go to the greatest competition in the world," recalls diver Frank Siak, "and all you're thinking about is a decision you'll be making that will affect the rest of your life."
For some, deciding to return home came relatively easily. Gymnast Olga Tass had a disabled daughter and swore by the care she received from her doctors in Hungary. Boxer Laszlo Papp, who won his third gold medal in three Olympics, had a wife, an 18-month-old son and the comfortable life of an Eastern bloc sports celebrity. For a few others, deciding to defect was just as easy. The Hungarian regime had targeted Magay's parents because of their extensive landholdings, and they were now squatters barred from working. The parents of canoeist Istvan Hernek had been detained by the AVO and his mother nearly beaten to death.
But for most of the Hungarian Olympians it was a much harder call. Swimmer Valeria Gyenge's fiancé had escaped and told her to wait for him in Melbourne, but her mother wailed through the phone line at the news that her little girl wouldn't be coming home. Gymnast Attila Takach cabled home asking if he should "visit Paola," who lived in Los Angeles, and his mother replied, "Send my love to Aunt Paola," giving him her blessing to leave. Nevertheless, "it was misery," Takach said a few weeks before his death at 82 in February 2011. "We didn't know what to decide. When the Sports Illustrated offer came through, many of us decided to go with that."
Several days after the Hungarians reached Melbourne, SI writer Whitney Tower had sent a memo to his boss, managing editor Sid James, proposing a daring operation. Tower was related by marriage to Hungary's exiled royal family, and one of his in-laws, a New York-based count named Anthony Szapary, hoped to bring Hungarian athletes from Melbourne to the U.S. as refugees. SI was then barely two years old and was alarming Time Inc. founder Henry Luce with its financial losses. But Luce valued the anti-Communist cause as much as profits. The company's flagship magazine, Time, would honor the Hungarian Freedom Fighter as its Man of the Year. It made perfect sense that Szapary and George Telegdy, the secretary of Hungary's sports federation, would try to enlist the magazine company in their efforts.
Time Inc. vice president C.D. Jackson endorsed the appeal as soon as it hit his desk. Jackson had served as a psychological warfare expert for the OSS during World War II and instantly grasped the operation's propaganda potential. One member of SI's Olympic contingent, writer Coles Phinizy, hadn't yet left for Australia, so on Nov. 19, after boarding a flight in New York City, he worked out a code for all cable communications during the operation (it was the Cold War, after all) and mailed it back to the office while stopping over in San Francisco. Phinizy used a proposed Australian Rules Football tour as his cover. A reference to "one full team" would mean 30 defectors; "one full team and six substitutes," therefore, was 36. "Football Federation" would stand for U.S. State Department. "Tour of more than a month" would denote U.S. permanent residency or citizenship. "Len Turner" was miler Laszlo Tabori; "George Kramer," water polo star Gyorgy Karpati; "Greg Turnbull," Count Szapary's fixer George Telegdy; and so on. Phinizy also carried a copy of Tower's memo outlining the operation and hand delivered it to the man in charge of SI's Melbourne Olympic coverage, assistant managing editor Andre Laguerre.
Perhaps no one had a better grasp of geopolitics, sports and the immigrant experience than Laguerre. The eldest child of a French diplomat and an upper-class Englishwoman, Laguerre had spent his teenage years in San Francisco, where he hung out at Pacific Coast League baseball games and worked as a copyboy at the Chronicle. In his 20s he covered Neville Chamberlain's sellout to Hitler in Munich for the French newspaper Paris-Soir. When Germany attacked France, Laguerre enlisted in the French army and was plucked, shrapnel in his neck, from the waters off Dunkirk. He eventually became press officer to Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the Free French in London, and after the war he joined the Time bureau there. By 1955, Winston Churchill was calling Laguerre the best political reporter in Britain.
Luce, who knew little about sports, insisted on having Laguerre at his elbow during ball games and horse races to explain the action. In March 1956, Luce asked him to come to New York to help run his struggling sports magazine. Laguerre was devastated. He loved the hurly-burly of overseas reporting, the proximity to power and great events. He agreed only out of loyalty to his boss. So Laguerre must have brightened when Phinizy reached Melbourne with his orders. Here was a chance for Laguerre to return to the action.
Three times Laguerre met with members of the Hungarian delegation: early one morning in the corner of a practice field, at midday in his hotel room and late at night at a house in the Melbourne suburbs. "While it was not for us to urge the decision itself," he explained in SI's Dec. 17 issue, "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." After that first meeting Laguerre cabled New York: must report that some aussie footballers holding privileged jobs had most unamateur outlook and appear mainly interested in financial rewards. His observation foreshadowed the eventual decision of some defectors to return home and reclaim their roles as kept athletes in Hungary's state-supported system.
Another Laguerre telegram read, players' confidence in coach turnbull seems by no means unanimous. Telegdy wanted to restore the Hungarian monarchy. "We weren't communists," Nick Martin recalls, "but we weren't royalists either." At one point Telegdy recruited four Romanian Olympians of Hungarian descent to defect, prompting SI writer Roy Terrell to cable New York that "Turnbull" was gathering oppressed peoples like a dog gathers fleas.
As the Games wound down, Hungarian delegation chief Gyula Hegyi asked those who didn't plan to return home to let him know, so their flight bookings could be canceled. The hour had come. Young and single, Tabori, the runner, was guided by a telegram from his sister Elizabeth: situation very bad. do what you think is right. The night before the team was to leave, Tabori asked his coach, Mihaly Igloi, what he planned to do. Igloi walked away without saying a word. But Igloi had spent five years in Siberia after Russian soldiers grabbed him on a Budapest street. At the airport he told Tabori he too would be leaving and added, "Why don't we stick together?"
The women gymnasts won the team gold medal on the final day and had to choose their futures only hours after stepping off the podium. "Being so young, you don't think about the dangers," says one of them, Marta Nagy Wachter. "Today you'd linger over a decision for days or weeks. It's still amazing that we did it."
The first two to push off were, symbolically, the boatmen: rowing coach Zoltan Torok and coxswain Robert Zimonyi. On their way to the gate of the Olympic village they walked down a street called Liberty Parade -- "one of those dramatic coincidences which occasionally brighten the drab hues of reality," Laguerre noted. Whisked away in a sports car to a safe house in the Melbourne suburbs, they toasted the future over a bottle of Hungarian Egri Bikaver red.
Most of the defectors went to the airport to see off those who were flying back to Hungary. Balint Galantai, who would settle in Australia, cried as he kissed fellow wrestlers goodbye. An anguished young gymnast called the scene in the terminal "the funeral of Hungarian sport." Those staying serenaded those who were going back with the pre-Soviet anthem God Bless the Hungarian Nation.
The defectors were spooked by the Gruzia, a Soviet ship docked in Melbourne's harbor. "Russian athletes would be taken from the podium to the ship," Hernek recalls. Australian federal security police threw a cordon around the Hungarians' quarters until the Gruzia pulled up anchor.
Then, on Dec. 18, not quite a month after Tower's memo was delivered, word came: The U.S. State Department had granted asylum to 34 Hungarians and Telegdy's four Romanians -- one full team and eight substitutes. (At least a dozen more Hungarian athletes and coaches would defect to other countries.) To transport them to the U.S., Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe provided the clipper Trade Wind, which would leave Melbourne on Dec. 23.
If freedom and resettlement had been the sole purpose of the operation, the defectors could have been placed anywhere in the West -- even Melbourne, with its Hungarian émigré community. But Luce and Jackson, Szapary and Telegdy, agreed: So much had been done to bring the Hungarians to the U.S. that their arrival should be leveraged for full propaganda value. For that, SI had a plan.
Before the Trade Wind touched down in California, Martin stood in the aisle to address the team: Forget how it's done in Hungary. We'll be in America, where things are done differently.
"He said we should try to fit in, whatever the situation," Ordogh Zimsen remembers. "I thought it was a marvelous piece of advice."
Invited into the cockpit, Martin could hardly believe the scene laid out before him. San Francisco shimmered in sunshine on the day before Christmas. Gymnast Andrea Bodo Schmid-Shapiro recalls the huge Christmas tree in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, where the delegation stayed. Tabori went for a run in Golden Gate Park. Zador got a ride over the Bay Bridge in a white Cadillac convertible, top down, to a reception in the Oakland hills. "The lights, the car, the wind in your face, it was enormous," Zador recalled before he died at 77 in April. "I said, 'This is where I'm gonna die.' "
"The deluge of new impressions," fencer Eugene Hamori adds, "didn't leave much room for sentimentality."
Three days later the party flew to New York City. Just before New Year's, Siak, the diver, who hadn't been able to reach his family before departing from Budapest, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. His father and brothers saw him on TV in Canada, to which they had escaped, and rushed down to see him. "I decided for sure not to go back only when I heard from them," Siak says.
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