Sports Illustrated Daily, July 28, 1996

Sports Illustrated Olympic Daily Flashback

A bloody war that spilled into the pool

by Ron Fimrite

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.

Ervin Zador

The Soviets invaded Hungary but couldn't crush the spirit of Zador and his teammates.

photograph by
AP


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.

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 fight back."

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, Dezs÷ 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 and headlocks.

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.

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