With the Olympic Games in full swing it was apparent to all around them in the Olympic Village that the brilliant athletes of the Hungarian team were bearing a fearful emotional burden. To explain what was in their hearts, two team members—one a prominent athlete who arrived by air from Prague, and one an official who came to Melbourne aboard the Soviet steamer Gruzia—agreed to speak anonymously to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for this exclusive report:
When the revolution began," the athlete said, "we were all gathered in Budapest for training. Everyone felt very confident about the team's prospects at the Olympics; we were scheduled to leave Budapest by air October 28 and, according to the plans, we would have three weeks to settle down and acclimatize ourselves in Melbourne. But what happened in Hungary was too spontaneous, too natural to be ignored. It is hard to describe all the emotions that filled us during those hours. But I do remember we were in an ecstatic state. Suddenly no one was afraid of the secret police. When October 23 came, and the marchers behind national flags started to swell into tens of thousands, our hearts leaped and sport and the Olympics were forgotten.
"A yearning for national independence, a decent democratic life and freedom and dignity took their place. None of us was thinking of physical condition, training, sleep, departure dates or gold medals. I was among the marchers and it was not strange to me that the discipline of training melted away. The hours were loaded with history and our side was winning. This gave us all wings. But on the third day, when we had our new national government and Soviet troops were leaving the city, we suddenly remembered the Games. Appeals were broadcast to the athletes to assemble at the Scillag Hotel. We were widely scattered—all but 12 of us had been living with our families—and it was a gigantic job. Telephones and public transport were out of service. Some athletes were tracked down by cars. Others heard the radio and walked to the hotel. Within a day and a half we were all together again.
"Many of the athletes had been involved in the fighting and, as they came to the hotel, many without their baggage, they told us how they had manned machine guns and barricades, fought secret police and Soviet troops and helped carry wounded. Our faces were flushed with pride and pleasure as we went to Prague where we were to leave by air for Australia. The Czechs put us up in a boarding school. They did everything to make us comfortable, but as we listened with anxious hearts to the Budapest and Western radio reports of Soviet reprisals, the urge to forget the Olympics and return home grew immensely. The atmosphere was explosive, and only the warning from Czech authorities that we could not cross the border into Hungary kept many from returning. We were told the border was closed.
"Five days after our arrival in Prague our team leader, Gyula Hegyi, who has been a stalwart sportsman for 40 years and is also head of the National Sports Council, called us together and told us emotionally, 'We must go on to the Games.'
"His words offered us a solution in a seemingly hopeless situation. All but 12 members of the team are married and parents of children, but even they realized at this crossroads that we had a duty to come to Melbourne and tell the world about our wonderful revolution. It was that feeling which brought us here. Both in Prague and on the way to Melbourne we could not help but fear that our families might be dead and our homes destroyed. While we waited for news from home we lost sleep and our faces became haggard and drawn. What can our poor coaches and trainers do against such thoughts?"
Meanwhile, 17 Hungarian coaches, trainers, masseurs and technicians had left Odessa on Oct. 8 as paying passengers on the Russian steamship Gruzia—a vessel Americans will remember as Poland's Gdynia-America liner Sobieski, which used to sail from New York to the Mediterranean until seized by the Russians one day in 1950. "We had a friendly start," said one of them. "Captain Elizabaz of the Gruzia arranged for Moscow short-wave news bulletins to be tape-recorded for us after we got out of range of Radio Budapest, and news became our main interest. The bulletins were those broadcast to satellite countries, and because we have known these broadcasts to be distorted, our anxiety increased.
" Moscow Radio was quoting the Yugoslav press agency Tanjug for its descriptions of events in Hungary and this made us doubly anxious. We felt the situation must be really serious if Soviet journalists had left Budapest.
"On the ship there was a chill in the air. One night three of us were talking to a Russian girl. In a few minutes a Russian sailor called out to her sharply. She looked uncomfortable and excused herself suddenly. After that, the Soviet girls stayed away from us.
"There was no clash between Hungarians and Russians, but this was perhaps due to the fact that at no stage of the voyage were we aware of what really had happened in Hungary. After what I heard on my arrival in Melbourne, I will never mix with those butchers again."