A globe-encompassing conflict that forced almost every country to take sides in the confrontation between capitalism and communism, the Cold War unfolded in many arenas, including international athletic competitions. The United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies used the Olympic Games and similar sporting events both to showcase the ample sporting talents of their citizens as well as to demonstrate to the rest of the world the advantages of their political systems and the unity of the camps to which they belonged. Of course, such contests fostered amicable cultural contact and generated citizen exchanges, thereby contributing to the relative peace of the era. But sports still have winners and losers, and East-West athletic rivalries made for engaging propaganda and enduring popular memories.
In an online lecture delivered on November 30, Dr. Johanna Mellis, Assistant Professor of History at Ursinus College, focused on a particularly arresting episode of Cold War-era sport history: the 1956 Melbourne Olympics water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union. Played on December 6, the semi-finals game happened against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution, ruthlessly suppressed in a Soviet invasion just a month earlier. Hungarian athletes won 4-0 in a brutal contest, as both teams engaged in outright violence. Towards the end of the match, Hungarian star Ervin Zádor took a heavy punch from a Soviet player. Bleeding profusely from the cut under his eye, Zádor emerged from the pool as the referees rushed to wrap up the game and quell the wrath of the spectators. Many Hungarian immigrants in the stands were already reeling from the crackdown on the revolution in their homeland. The sight of Zádor’s bleeding face almost launched a riot. With one minute left to play, the game was stopped, and Hungary declared the victor, as they already were ahead at that point. The match entered history as the “Blood in the Water” game. Photos of a stunned and bloodsoaked Zádor appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the world. In a year when Time put a composite “Hungarian Freedom Fighter” on its cover as its Man of the Year, the Soviet-Hungarian water polo match turned out to be extremely useful for anticommunist propaganda, and to this day it remains a fixture in the Hungarian nationalist narrative, as a David-and-Goliath-like parable.
Dr. Mellis aimed her talk at critically examining this traditional view of the match and expanding it in a few key ways. First, she discussed the part that the players themselves took in the game’s media portrayal. For example, in his memoir, Dezső Gyarmati, the captain of the Hungarian team, revealed that he told Ervin Zádor to flaunt his bleeding face for the reporters. This claim is hard to corroborate (all the players have since passed away) but if true, it suggests that at least some Hungarian team members thought quite purposefully about the Cold War optics and how best to present their cause to the public. Second, Dr. Mellis turned to the defection experiences of Hungarian athletes. While no one disputes that a large number of Hungarian Olympians (Gyarmati and Zádor among them) defied the communist authorities by defecting to the United States at the conclusion of the 1956 Olympic Games, a few factors other than their personal initiative and courage were involved. For instance, in the weeks leading up to the event, the CIA ran Operation Griffin, aimed at persuading more Hungarian athletes to defect and to facilitate the immigration process for them. Upon their settlement in the United States, Time and Sports Illustrated paid the athletes for the opportunity to show them enjoying their new life in the “land of the free.” After this initial spell, many defectors were left to their own devices. Few spoke good English, and only one was truly fluent. While in Hungary, as in other Eastern Bloc countries then, the Olympians received funding through bogus day jobs (while training full-time), the US did not offer many opportunities for athletes beyond college, while strictly enforcing the amateur rule for its Olympians. Some defectors, like Zádor, were lucky enough to remain with their sport by landing coaching appointments, but most abandoned the sports realm forever. Many struggled with poverty, and about a quarter of all defectors had returned to Hungary by 1958. Their numbers included Gyarmati, who was initially banned from competing internationally but soon was accepted back on the national team in 1960. Taking into account the careers of the defecting players, Dr. Mellis argued, can help us understand how the experiences of Eastern European athletes during the Cold War were often instrumentalized for ideological purposes.
Another important avenue of research into this historic game is its perception in communist Hungary at the time. According to Dr. Mellis, the average Hungarian citizen knew very little about the fateful match apart from its final score and its physicality, which was as much as the papers could publish then. The people in Hungary were never exposed to the sensationalist coverage of the match in the Western press or the striking photos of Ervin Zádor covered in blood—any detail about the game beyond the Hungarian sports community likely spread privately. The nationalist narrative only began to emerge after 1985, when many former defectors were welcomed back into Hungary.
Dr. Mellis concluded her presentation by touching upon the modern treatment of the match in documentaries, exemplified by the 2006 film Freedom’s Fury. Produced by Quentin Tarantino and Lucy Liu, the movie was filmed in the early 2000s, with the release timed to the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. Its interviews with the players reflected not only their determination to act, but also the ambivalence some of them felt about the events of the game. To reenact parts of the match itself, the directors filmed the US men’s water polo team. Bizarrely, afterwards, they opted for expensive reshoots to remove the two American black players, Genai Kerr and Omar Amr, from the final footage. Ostensibly a step to preserve historical accuracy, this decision, as Dr. Mellis argued, was emblematic of the long-standing problems with diversity in US aquatic sports. Thus, Freedom’s Fury’s producers essentially incorporated anti-blackness into their history of a Cold War episode, thus influencing the viewers’ mental image of it. Since no other major documentary treatment of the game has been attempted, Freedom’s Fury, dominated by American decision-makers, retains special authority in its depiction.
In her concluding remarks, Dr. Mellis stressed the importance of avoiding long-standing Cold War-era tropes and binaries and including the full extent of Hungarian perspectives (from dissenters to cooperators) to produce nuanced and perceptive accounts of the 1956 match.
Stepan Serdiukov is a doctoral student in History at IU.