To be an American athlete in Communist Hungary last week was to be very nearly suffocated with adulation. Everywhere they went in Budapest the Americans drew crowds, and for the boys there were keenly hospitable Magyar girls, each one better looking than the one before and no less eager to accept an invitation to dinner, to dance or to stroll. The Hungarian press was enraptured by Randy Matson's "enormous presence," and the big Texas shotputter spent hours signing autographs, sometimes 10 to a customer. When the U.S. basketball team played the Russians it was embarrassing, not because the Yanks won their first game so smashingly (81-38), but because the crowd lavished its cheers on the Americans and booed—yes, even heckled—the Soviets. These were the World University Games, the Universiade, and for the U.S. athletes they were altogether stunning and delightful, because they were altogether pro-American.
Ironically, U.S. officials had boycotted the games for nine years, fearing that they were a Communist plot to make political hay out of a sporting event. The officials were wrong in one sense. The organizers of the games—the International Federation of University Sports—were predominantly Western. Even today only five of IFUS's 14 executive members are from the Eastern bloc. But the U.S. was right in another sense. Try as they did, Britain, France and Germany were unable to match the Olympic level of the Communist athletes. At the most recent championships—the 1963 games in P�rto Alegre, Brazil—Hungary and Russia monopolized medals.
But now the U.S. knows about the Universiade, and it knows better. Perhaps most important, it knows a little more about a people that had not seen an American flag in public since the bloody Hungarian uprising of 1956. The Hungarians saw a lot of the Stars and Stripes in the 10 days of the games. The U.S. flag was going up with ceremonial regularity as American athletes won and won again, coming close to duplicating their impres-sive showing at the Tokyo Olympics.
Always it was a case of getting a great deal out of a short supply. The U.S. sent a less-than-modest-size team of only 40 athletes to Budapest, compared with the Soviet Union's 220, and contingents of 150 to 180 from West Germany, Hungary, Rumania and Japan. (The U.S. might not have had even 40 entered had Team Director Jim Fowler been any less persistent in his dealings with the State Department and those internecine rivals, the AAU and the NCAA.) None of America's brilliant girl swimmers was there because that is what most of them are—girls too young to be in college. Universiade rules require an athlete to be at a university or to have been at one no longer than two years before the games, and to be under 28 years of age.
Few of the Americans approached 28, but from the the first day when the thousands of Hungarians screamed "Hajra! Hajra! Magyarok!" (Hurray! Hurray! Magyars!) and then adjusted quickly to their new American loyalties, they seemed mature enough. The swimmers, only 12 in number, swept seven of 10 events, while U.S. divers Rick Gilbert and Bernie Wrightson made the world's best college divers look like kids holding their noses and leaping into the creek. The 11 U.S. trackmen won 3 gold medals, including California Bill Toomey's sweeping decathlon victory, 3 silvers and 3 bronzes. And the U.S. basketball team, with Bill Bradley performing as only Bill Bradley can, won eight straight. At the finish the Yanks had accumulated 14 gold medals, second to friendly little Hungary's 16, but one ahead of the Soviet Union's 13.
Hungarian red-white-and-green flags were everywhere when the Americans flew in for their first glimpse of Budapest—and first view of the Danube, which is not blue. It is more Spanish olive. Magyars had two explanations: 1) you have to drink quite a bit of Tokay wine before you realize that the Danube is blue, and 2) it is really only blue in the Strauss waltz.
In his welcoming speech to 2,500 athlet�s from 35 countries, and to the 60,000 spectators at the opening ceremony, Hungarian Premier Gyula Kallai, obviously directing his affection toward the Americans, said that "sports are not only physical education but also one of the means of rapprochement and friendship between countries.... I hope that you will find an opportunity to see some of the sights and the life of the people of Budapest."
The young American swimmers took the Premier at his word. They set out immediately to date every good-looking Hungarian girl in sight. They worked out a sure-fire technique: spot a beautiful girl in the stands, jump into the pool and win a race and then, when you collect the bouquet of roses that comes with the gold medal, quickly rush up to the girl in the stands and give her the flowers. While Hungarians were applauding these gestures of chivalry—and playing Sentimental Journey, San Francisco and Go Down, Moses to honor their adopted heroes—swimmer Carl Robie was working out a new twist. He liked the blonde who presented him with the roses so much he presented them back to her. She kissed him (a Hungarian custom). Robie kissed her back.
To the Hungarians the tall, blond American swimmers looked very much alike. "The only way to tell them apart," said a fan after watching the four-man medley-relay team of Thompson Mann, Tom Tretheway, Philip Riker and Don Roth win over the Russians, "is to throw them into the pool and see which stroke they use." For a while the Americans could always be distinguished by their much-fancied red-white-and-blue Speedo swimsuits. Then one day Soviet swimmer Oleg Fotin turned up in the same suit. "Oh, my," a Magyar mocked him, "what would the Red Chinese say about that?"
The Communist Chinese did not say, because they did not participate. Neither did the East Germans. The Cubans were there, however, with a basketball team, runners, a big rooting section and a red-hot rhythm combo. But politics were left to the politicians, and no one seemed inclined to bring up the war in Vietnam. The inquisitive Americans not only made repeated inquiries concerning the progress of the Gemini space flight, which coincided with the games but was not easy to keep tabs on, they also wanted to know about "all those bullet holes in the buildings." With no embarrassment, the Hungarians discussed the revolt.