On December 6, 1956, political tension between Hungary and the Soviet Union boiled over during a hard-fought water polo Olympic semi-final, held against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution, which later became known as the infamous ‘Blood in the Water’ match.
Since the socialist People’s Republic of Hungary was declared in 1949, Hungary had remained under formal Soviet control. But after a brief period of moderate liberalization, following the death of Stalin in 1953, Hungary’s reformist Prime Minister Imre Nagy was sacked and replaced by a more hardline Soviet government.
In October 1956, a demonstration by students in Budapest escalated into a full-fledged uprising against the Soviet-backed regime and Nagy was brought back as Prime Minister. He withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and declared the country’s intention to seek independence.
At the time, the Hungarian water polo team was training for the upcoming Melbourne Summer Olympics in a mountain camp above Budapest. When the Hungarian Revolution broke out, precisely one month before the opening ceremony, the defending Olympic champions were moved to Czechoslovakia to avoid being caught in the turmoil.
Hungary’s Olympians left with the revolution apparently successful and heard no more news until their arrival in Australia on November 20. By then, the Soviet Union had invaded, the resistance had been crushed and more than 3,000 Hungarians had died. Two days later, on the day of the opening ceremony, Nagy was arrested by Soviet authorities.
A week later, the Hungarian water polo team kicked off their Olympic campaign. They beat Great Britain 6-1, the United States 6-2, and then thrashed both Germany and Italy 4-0 to make it to a much-anticipated semi-final confrontation against the Soviet Union. For many members of the Hungarian team, the occasion was all about revenge.
Tensions were already high between the Hungarian and Soviet water polo team. Having won three of the previous four Olympic gold medals, Hungary was the game’s great superpower. But the Soviets, who had been humiliated at the 1952 Games, worked on improving their chances by taking advantage of Moscow’s political control over Hungary to copy the unique training methods and tactics of the Olympic champions.
The momentous semi-final drew a capacity crowd, bolstered by members of Melbourne’s large Hungarian community, and the atmosphere became tense right from the start. “The Hungarians there were so charged, and there was such deep hostility for all the things they did to our country since 1945, that all these people in Australia just went absolutely berserk,” later recalled Hungary’s star player at the time, Ervin Zádor.
The Hungarian game plan revolved around verbally agitating the Russian players, and for the Hungarians, all educated in the Soviet system, being rude in Russian was not hard. “We figured if they were going to get angry they’re going to start to fight, and once they fight they won’t play well, and if they don’t play well we will beat them, and if we beat them we would win the Olympics,” said Zádor.
The plan worked and it took less than a minute for the first Russian player to get sent to the penalty box. Amidst continued provocations, players of both sides continued to exchange kicks and punches. “We were yelling at them, ‘You dirty bastards. You come over and bomb our country,’” Zádor recalled. “They were calling us traitors.” In total, five players were ordered out of the pool by the referee.
But the Hungarians were the better team, and by the fourth quarter, they were up 4-0. With two minutes to play, Zádor was asked to mark the Valentin Prokopov, one of the Soviet Union’s finest player of the time, with whom Zádor had already traded insults earlier in the game. And with the Hungarian player’s attention drawn by the referee’s whistle, Prokopov rose out of the water and smote Hungary’s young attacking prodigy viciously in the face.
“A whistle came, I looked at the referee, I said ‘What’s the whistle for?’ And the moment I did that, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake. I turned back and with a straight arm, he just smacked me in the face. He tried to punch me out. I saw about 4,000 stars,” Zádor recounted.
Blood poured from the Hungarian player’s split cheek as he was taken out of the pool and straight to the medical room. Angry spectators and officials immediatly jumped onto the concourse beside the water, shook their fists, shouted abuse and spat at the Russians, drowning out the announcer’s voice who declared the match finished. Only the sudden appearance of police, who shepherded the spectators away, prevented a riot.
The headline “Cold War violence erupts at Melbourne Olympics” ran the following day in the Sydney Morning Herald. And as pictures of Zádor’s injuries were published around the world, the “Blood in the Water” match quickly gained a wider audience, seizing the imagination of a world shocked by the brutal crushing of the Hungarian Revolution, while offering some crumbs of comfort to a traumatized nation.
Hungary then went on to beat Yugoslavia 2–1 in the final to win their fourth Olympic gold medal, although Zádor’s injury forced him to miss the match. Following their victory, Zádor defected to the West, along with some of his teammates, and never returned to Hungary. He headed to San Francisco where he became a swimming coach, notably training nine-time Olympic champion Mark Spitz.
Meanwhile in Hungary, mass arrests and denunciations continued for months after the failed uprising, causing more than 200,000 Hungarians to flee to the West as refugees.
Quentin Tarantino, who produced the documentary Freedom’s Fury about the “Blood in the Water” match, has described it as “the best untold story ever”.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.