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THE MAGAZINE
Posted: Wednesday June 13, 2012 3:16PM ; Updated: Friday June 15, 2012 12:20PM

The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Olympians (cont.)

By Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated

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In early January the Olympians embarked on SI's Hungarian Athletes' Freedom Tour. Beyond keeping the Hungarian crisis in the news, each stopover raised money for refugee relief and gave the young magazine a hit of publicity. The tour featured two troupes -- one for aquatics, the other for gymnasts and fencers -- whose members competed in exhibitions. (Tabori and Igloi joined the U.S. indoor track circuit instead.) Over 10 weeks the Hungarians met Louis Armstrong backstage in Miami Beach and President Eisenhower in the White House; tried waterskiing in Orlando and inspected an auto plant in Detroit; saw the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon and the Las Vegas strip. "We'd grown up in an isolated society where you didn't express your feelings, and here people were literally warm, hugging us," remembers Nagy Wachter. "It's one of the reasons I decided to stay in the States."

To tart up their exhibitions, the water polo players might toss an SI minder into the pool, while the fencers did a send-up of Hollywood sword fighting scenes, with gymnasts cast as damsels in distress. "It was a fabulous time," says Martin, "and for once in our lives we didn't have to worry about the score."

Each athlete had been handed something called A Practical Handbook of the English Language; upon meeting Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, one mischievous Hungarian decided to drop some of the book's practice dialogue on Hizzoner: "My name is Mr. Brown. How do you do? Lend me a hammer, please."

SI made it clear that it would help anyone return to Hungary at any time. But two water polo players decided to take matters into their own hands, which led to the most cloak-and-dagger- moment of the tour. Word had reached one of them, Laszlo Jeney, that his wife back home was pregnant; the other, Karpati, was engaged to a Miss Hungary. When the tour passed through Washington, D.C., the two athletes quietly arranged to meet the Hungarian consul at the Willard Hotel. But before they could enter the lobby, they were detained by U.S. agents. "They asked us to state our business," Karpati remembers. "We explained we wanted to go home." They were both deported before they could redefect, but the Feds made sure they left with a favorable final impression. "They flew us back first class," recalls Karpati, who says that all along he and Jeney had wanted only a sightseeing tour of the U.S. "We were worried what the conditions would be like after the revolution and what our reception would be. The reception was good because we were champions. It was good propaganda: See, these guys who won gold medals came home."

No one on the tour begrudged anyone else's decision to return. "Those of us who stayed for good understood," Hamori says. "We even sympathized with the logistical and political acrobatics the others had to go through, brownnosing the sports commissars to convince them that they hadn't really intended to defect."

The tour ended in mid-March back in San Francisco, after some 8,000 miles and 59 cities. It had more than paid for itself, leaving a surplus of $10,000 ($80,000 today) for refugee relief. The younger athletes sifted through college scholarship offers; the others had jobs lined up. Each of them had a small grubstake from saving per diems, as well as possessions collected during a shopping spree in a department store, where each was invited to fill a suitcase with anything but jewelry. "Most of us wanted to go to California," Nagy Wachter remembers. "California had a magic."

Before they scattered, the Hungarians returned to the top of the Mark Hopkins. My God, Takach thought as he looked out over the bay, we have seen so much of the world.

*****

Sit down with a surviving '56er today, and you're sure to hear a rhapsody about San Francisco in its brilliant winter light, but you're also likely to hear of nightmares. Over the past 55 years Magay and Hernek, Gerlach and Schmid-Shapiro have all dreamed that they're back in Hungary and can't get out.

The flop sweat is only temporary, for life in the U.S. has been strikingly good for the defectors. Nearly all who stayed have prospered. How they made their way in the new world roughly conforms to their disciplines. Most of the fencers and gymnasts -- sensible, calculating, mindful of balance -- capitalized on those college scholarships, and many earned science and engineering degrees. The swimmers and divers tended to jump right into the figurative pool. Accustomed to the stray elbow, the water polo players took their dunkings and bobbed back up. "It's lucky we were so young," says swimmer Katherine Szoke Domyan, who's still married to water polo player Arpad Domyan. "Young people can do anything. Or so I discovered when I wasn't so young anymore."

International Olympic Committee rules required anyone who switched nationalities to wait five years before competing under a new flag, and that ended further Olympic hopes for many of the Hungarians. "I thought I was going to conquer the world," says Tabori. "It turns out the world conquered me."

But most of those for whom a sports career was paramount had not defected, and eight on the Freedom Tour shortly went back to Hungary. When they arrived, "the only thing people kept asking was, Why the hell did you come back?" said runner Istvan Roszavolgyi, who returned directly from Melbourne. (He died in January 2012.)

The truth, however, is that Hungarians enjoyed relatively more liberties under the so-called Goulash Communism of the 1960s and '70s, when their country was allowed to become what was described as "the merriest barracks in the prison camp," because Moscow feared more unrest. That's one reason defectors' relatives back home suffered few reprisals. Another is the sheer number of people, athletes or not, who fled. "Take 250,000 and multiply it by three or four or five relatives who stayed behind," Takach explained, "and it would have been impractical to persecute them all."

Soon after Ordogh Zimsen's defection, her mother was summoned to the sports ministry to provide an explanation. Ilona Ordogh went on the offensive: "Yes, and where is my daughter? I put her in your care, and you didn't bring her back to me!" The bureaucrats didn't have much of a response.

Once defectors earned U.S. citizenship, they could go back to visit their families, for the Hungarian government honored the passports of U.S. tourists. Meanwhile aging parents often received permission to visit the U.S., and several permanently joined their children. "Once you reached retirement age, you just sucked up a pension," explained Zador, who brought his parents over in the late '50s. After several months of complaining about laid-back attitudes and disrespectful children, they returned to Budapest. Within days -- "after dealing again with no hot water," their son says, "and lugging blocks of ice to the refrigerator on the fourth floor" -- they begged him to take them back, promising never to complain again. They spent the rest of their lives in California.

In 2006 the makers of Freedom's Fury arranged a water polo reunion in Budapest for eight Hungarians and four of the vanquished Soviets. Outwardly, bonhomie prevailed. "They were pawns just like we were," Zador said of the Soviets. But Zador detected a chill from Karpati and Jeney, his teammates who left the tour early. "Karpati and I had been very close," he says. "Same with Jeney. I'd have loved for them to say, 'Come, see my home, see how I live.' I wanted to find out what it'd been like in Hungary. They came to all the scheduled events, but then they'd leave."

But most of those who returned to live out politically ambiguous lives in Hungary carried the spirit of '56 with them. Before leaving Melbourne, Jeney took the pre-Communist flag with the black mourning stripe that had flown over the Hungarians' compound and hid it in the casing of one of the team's canoes. He squirreled it away in his home for more than 30 years. Today the flag is on display at a Budapest primary school.

After the reunion, Zador and Martin rented a car and spent 10 days vagabonding incognito through the countryside. "We were just American tourists, talking to people in English, paying in dollars," Zador said. "We didn't tell anyone we were Hungarian, and people freely expressed their opinions.

"When I left, there were maybe 10 cars in Hungary. Now Budapest was wall-to-wall cars, graffiti, buildings turned gray from pollution. People didn't seem happy. There's always been someone pounding on that country. They're survivors."

Hungarian émigrés are survivors too. Why have so many prospered in strange and daunting environments, as if, in the words of journalist Kati Marton, they carry "magic in their pockets"? Another émigré writer, Arthur Koestler, suggests an answer in Hungarians' linguistic and ethnic apartness from other Europeans: "a hopeless solitude" that "feeds their creativity, their desire for achieving."

"Hungarians are romantic," Schmid Shapiro says, "or we never would have gone up against the big Russians."

Hungarian journalist Dezso Dobor, who spent years debriefing '56ers for a 2006 book and TV special called It Began As an Olympics, says their defection "wasn't so much a political choice as the attraction of the unknown. America was seen as a paradise, where the fences around houses were made of sausages and chocolate. The ones who stayed were smart and talented. They made it work."

Made it work with work, in fact. Karpati and Jeney "realized they'd have to work here, where in Hungary they had all the benefits of the state," Gerlach says. "They discovered that here, gold doesn't grow on trees. Whereas we said, 'Right, it doesn't. You've got to go earn it.' "

Lend me a hammer, please, indeed.

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