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'Blood in the water' - Hungary's sporting battle against Soviet oppression

Story highlights

  • Hungary's water polo match with Soviet Union played against backdrop of revolution
  • Hungary beat Soviets 4-0 in semifinal at Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and went on to take gold
  • Failed revolution claimed 2,000 lives and created hundreds of thousands of refugees
  • Hungary is most successful water polo team at Olympics, winning nine gold medals

"Try to imagine the situation," says Dezso Gyarmati, captain of Hungary's 1956 Olympic water polo team.

"A superpower destroys your country with weapons and tanks -- a country that has never asked for that power to be there. And after that revolution is crushed you have to face the representatives of that superpower."

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 became the backdrop to one of the most famous contests in Olympic history, where blood spilled in the sporting arena came to symbolize the bloody struggle of a nation against a brutal oppressor, the former Soviet Union.

The events at the Melbourne Games in December that year became known as the "Blood in the Water" match, but when Hungary's water polo team set off for Australia in early November, the possibility of freedom still hung over the streets of Budapest.

Mass protests and fighting which erupted on October 23 had died down after a ceasefire was ordered, and Soviet armed forces were beginning their withdrawal.

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Gyarmati had taken part in the initial rally, leaving the team's training camp in the hills above Budapest to join protestors on the streets.

But by the time they set foot on Australian soil, Gyarmati and his teammates were informed of a brutal turn of events as Soviet forces ruthlessly reasserted their grip on the Hungarian capital.

More than 2,000 protesters were killed in the fighting, hundreds more were injured and many thousands were forced to flee the country.

It proved to be a bloody prelude to a bruising semifinal showdown with the Soviet water polo team.

Gyarmati recalls a tough, but generally disciplined match which turned sour in the closing moments when Soviet player Valentin Prokopov elbowed Hungary's star Ervin Zador in the face, cutting him below the eye.

"I told (Zador) to get out of the pool," Gyarmati recalled, "but not where he was, but to swim across the pool to the grandstand with 8,000 people.

"By the time he'd swum over, the blood had trickled down onto his chest. He looked like he (had come out) from the butcher. The audience exploded."

The headline "Cold War violence erupts at Melbourne Olympics" ran the following day in the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported that many spectators left their seats in the stands, shouting abuse and spitting at the Russians.

The image of Zador standing poolside, blood streaming down his torso, quickly gained a wider audience. It seized the imagination of a world shocked by the crushing of the Magyar uprising, while offering some crumbs of comfort to a traumatized nation as the Hungarians triumphed 4-0.

The team went on to win in the final, beating Yugoslavia 2-1 to claim the nation's fourth Olympic gold in the competition.

Zador, who didn't play in the final, never returned to Hungary, instead choosing to settle in the U.S. and become a swimming coach in California.

The victory over the Soviets inspired the making of a documentary "Freedom's Fury" and a feature film "Szabadsag, szerelem" ("Children of Glory") both released to mark the 50th anniversary in 2006.

The documentary, co-produced by Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino, was narrated by seven-time Olympic champion Mark Spitz, who was coached by Zador as a youngster during the 1960s.

The dramatic events in Melbourne form the centerpiece of a rich and proud heritage in the sport which has seen the Hungarians rack up nine Olympic golds, more than twice as many as any other nation.

The "Blood in the Water" story continues to inspire and motivate Hungary's modern water polo heroes including Gergely Kiss, who grew up in dying years of communist rule.

"Beating the beast, the big enemy was such a great feeling for every Hungarian. It helped so much for the revolution," Kiss said.

The 34-year-old was part of the Hungarian team which beat Russian opposition in the final at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, ending a 24-year gold medal drought.

Further success followed at Athens in 2004 and in Beijing four years later. Kiss will be aiming for a record fourth straight gold at this year's London Olympics.