There are two layers to every water polo match: the graceful athleticism above the water, and the rough play and cheap shots hidden beneath the surface. The 1956 Melbourne Olympics were a lot like a game of water polo. On the surface, they were billed as the “friendly games,” but simmering below were deep Cold War hostilities.
No single event at the Melbourne summer games carried higher political stakes than the semifinal water polo match between Hungary and the Union of Sovet Socialist Republics (USSR). Just weeks before the match, Soviet tanks and troops brutally crushed the short-lived Hungarian Revolution.
Now the hated rivals were meeting face to face in the Olympic pool. Before the game was over, those barely contained Cold War animosities erupted violently to the surface and the legendary showdown would forever be known as the “blood in the water” match.
Student Protests Escalate into Hungarian Revolution
The Melbourne games were held in late November and early December 1956 to coincide with the Australian summer. On October 23, Hungarian students staged a large-scale street protest calling for freedom from Soviet occupation and political repression. They toppled statues of Stalin and surrounded the state radio station, demanding to read a statement on air.
Hungarian secret police opened fire on the students. In response, members of the Hungarian army handed their weapons to the protesters. Within days, what started as an isolated street protest in Budapest quickly escalated into an armed revolution with supporters nationwide. On October 28, the Soviet troops stationed in Hungary retreated under a rain of bullets and Molotov cocktails.
The swift success of the Hungarian Revolution was as thrilling to the Hungarian Olympic team as it was to the student protesters. The athletes, including the Olympic champion Hungarian water polo team, boarded planes for the long journey to Australia believing they would be the first to represent a free Hungary to the postwar world.
As Games Begin, the USSR Crushes the Hungarian Revolution
It took several days for the Hungarian Olympians to arrive in Melbourne, because their travel plans were disrupted by the Suez Crisis, in which the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to nuke France and Great Britain if they didn’t pull their troops out of the Egyptian canal.
While the world’s attention was focused on the drama unfolding in Egypt, Khrushchev moved with an iron fist against the uprising in Hungary. On November 4, the Soviets stormed Budapest with overwhelming firepower—hundreds of tanks, thousands of troops and air support.
“Conservative estimates are that 2,500 to 3,000 Hungarians were massacred in the Soviet reinvasion, and total Hungarian casualties were at least 20,000,” says Colin Gray, a filmmaker who shot a documentary about the 1956 “blood in the water” water polo match called Freedom’s Fury. “It was students and factory workers with Molotov cocktails against tank columns and war planes.”
The Hungarian Olympic team had left Budapest in triumph and arrived in Melbourne in emotional tatters, mourning the loss of their countrymen and their newfound freedom. Their shock and sadness soon turned to rage, which they channeled into their athletic performances.
As fate would have it, the Hungarian water polo team—the overwhelming favorite to take gold again at the 1956 games—was slated to play the Soviets in a semifinal match.
“For the Hungarian athletes, the stakes of the game were clear,” says Gray. “ This is where they could face the Soviets on a fair playing field. No tanks or planes—they were going to settle this in the water.”
The Two Powerhouse Teams Knew Each Other Well
The captain of the Hungarian water polo team was Dezsö Gyarmati—a “very powerful man,” says Harry Blutstein, an Australian journalist and author of Cold War Games: Spies, Subterfuge and Secret Operations at the 1956 Olympic Games, in an interview with HISTORY.com. “In those days, the water polo balls were leather and incredibly heavy. For practice, Gyarmati would throw a leather ball from one end of the 30-meter pool to the other, swim the length of the pool, then do it again, over and over.”
While Gyarmati’s wife traveled with him to Melbourne, their 3-year-old daughter was at home in Budapest, and her fate, as well as the rest of the players’ families, was unknown.
The Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams weren’t strangers. The communist leadership back in Moscow was bitter that the Hungarians had taken gold in 1952, while the Soviet team didn’t even medal. To show the world the superiority of the Soviet system, the water polo team traveled to Hungary to train for the 1956 games, and some players forged friendships across political lines.
One of those friendships was between Gyarmati and the Soviet team captain, Petre Mshvenieradze, a hulk of a man known as “Peter the Great,” whose back Blutstein compares to a ping pong table. Mshvenieradze would often stay at Gyarmati’s house in Budapest.
But that didn’t mean there would be any mercy in the pool.
“There was nothing the satellite countries like Hungary or Yugoslavia liked more than beating the Russians,” says Blutstein, and in 1956 there was so much more than national pride on the line.
A Lopsided Game That Ended With an Iconic Cheap Shot
The Hungarian strategy was simple—to verbally and physically abuse the Soviet players until they lost their cool and retaliated, which would award the Hungarians a penalty.
Gyarmati wasted no time whacking his old pal Mshvenieradze in the face, breaking his nose, says Blutstein. And when Mshvenieradze got back in the pool, Gyarmati hit him in the nose again, infuriating the bear of a man. Water polo is a notoriously physical sport, though, and most of the kicks and punches of the Hungary-USSR were not exceptional in their violence.
“The only difference was it was continuous, it was vicious and it was personal,” says Blutstein. “There were some very angry Hungarians in the pool.”
As a game, it was fairly lopsided. The Hungarians were winning 4-0 with only minutes to go when Ervin Zádor, the young star of the Hungarian team, was given the assignment of guarding Valentin Prokopov, who just broke a Hungarian player’s ear drum. As the two men jockeyed for position, Zádor unleashed a stream of insults at Prokopov implicating the Russian’s mother in various unprintable acts.
With 90 seconds on the clock, the referee blew the whistle and Zádor turned around, expecting a penalty to be called against the Soviets. With Zádor’s back turned, Prokopov rose out of the water and belted the Hungarian in the face.
As Zádor pulled himself out of the pool, blood streamed from a fresh wound under his eye. Cameramen captured the iconic image of Zádor standing poolside, blood pouring down the right side of his face, as Hungarian officials and fans surged forward, threatening to riot.
The referees called the game and Australian police officers escorted the players back to the locker room in order to avoid an all-out brawl. The Hungarian team went on to win the gold medal match against Yugoslavia, but Zádor wasn’t medically cleared to play, an experience he later called “the hardest one hour of my life.”
At the Melbourne Games, 46 Athletes Defected
Although the CIA was barred from the games by Australian authorities, there were plenty of American spies posing as members of the press who arranged for visas for any athletes who wanted to defect to the West, says Blutstein. Several members of the Hungarian water polo team, including Gyarmati and Zádor, were among the 46 athletes who accepted the invitation.
“Before the semifinal match, there was definitely a team meeting,” says Gray. “The Hungarians basically said, ‘Let’s go beat the Soviets, win the gold medal and then each one of you do what is right for your own future.’”
Gyarmati lived briefly in the United States before returning to Hungary to play again for the Olympic team. Zádor settled in California where he became a swim coach. One of his star pupils was a young Mark Spitz.