12/06 – Blood in the Water

Ervin Zádor with members of his team, immediately after being punched by a Russian opponent. (VEOL)

The scene: The Melbourne Olympics, 1956. Men from the USSR’s water polo team face off against their Hungarian counterparts. They prepare for what seems like an ordinary match of water polo, but all is not as it seems.

Mere weeks before, the Hungarian team had been training in a mountain resort above Budapest. They already disliked the Russian team, who had taken advantage of the Soviet Union’s dominance of their country to copy the Hungarian team’s superior training methods. But as the Hungarian Revolution unfolded – the team could hear gunfire and see smoke rising over Budapest from their resort – their hatred of the Russian water polo team grew even more intense.

Before either team entered the pool, men from both teams kicked and punched at each other. The match continued and the Hungarians tried everything they could to make the Russians mad. By the end of the match, the floundering Russians were trailing 3 points behind the Hungarians. As Ervin Zádor scored a final point to the sounds of Hajrá Magyarok! (Go Hungary!) from the stands, Russian player Valentin Prokopov snapped and punched him in the face. The stands exploded as spectators rushed to the pool and began spitting at and threatening the Russian team. Police broke up the riot, and soon after Hungary was declared the match winner. The Hungarians went on to wipe the floor with Yugoslavia’s team and claim Olympic Gold. Zádor and his teammates had shown their defiance in the face of the Soviet Union, and he and several teammates defected to the West several years later. While the “Blood in the Water” incident is one of the strangest cases of violence in sports, it’s also an example of how the Cold War worked its way into many different facets of ordinary life – ones that seem, at least on the surface, completely disconnected from military and diplomatic affairs.

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