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REVOLUTION GAMES
ALEXANDER WOLFF
June 18, 2012
THE 1956 MELBOURNE OLYMPICS WERE PLUNGED INTO COLD WAR INTRIGUE AS DOZENS OF HUNGARIAN ATHLETES, UNWILLING TO RETURN HOME AFTER SOVIET TANKS CRUSHED A POPULAR UPRISING AGAINST COMMUNIST RULE, DEFECTED TO FREEDOM—WITH HELP FROM A YOUNG SPORTS MAGAZINE
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June 18, 2012

Revolution Games

THE 1956 MELBOURNE OLYMPICS WERE PLUNGED INTO COLD WAR INTRIGUE AS DOZENS OF HUNGARIAN ATHLETES, UNWILLING TO RETURN HOME AFTER SOVIET TANKS CRUSHED A POPULAR UPRISING AGAINST COMMUNIST RULE, DEFECTED TO FREEDOM—WITH HELP FROM A YOUNG SPORTS MAGAZINE

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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.

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."

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