One of the most fiercely fought battles in the history of the Olympics – the Water polo semi-final match between Hungary and USSR at Melbourne in 1956, has earned its place in infamy. Against the backdrop of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the match saw Hungary crushing the USSR 4-0, with its 21 year old star player Ervin Zádor emerging out of the pool with blood pouring from above his eye.
In 1956, there was a nationwide uproar against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from 23 October until 10 November 1956. Soviet tanks began rolling into Budapest and the Soviet forces began to suppress the uprising with air strikes, artillery bombardments, and tank-infantry actions. The Hungarian water polo team, the defending Olympics champions, placed in a mountain training camp at the capital, were able to hear gunfire and see the smoke rising. They were taken to Czechoslovakia for their safety and training, before they arrived in Melbourne for the Olympics.
Water polo at the Summer Olympics used to follow a round-robin structure from 1932. The Hungarians were leading in the standings, 1 point ahead of Yugoslavia and 2 ahead of the Soviets, with only two games left for each team. A Hungarian victory would ensure at least a silver medal for the team, with a draw or a win against Yugoslavia in the last game meaning gold.
In the morning before the beginning, the Hungarians adopted a clever strategy of taunting the Russians, in order to make them angry and distract their concentration. The occasion drew a capacity crowd, swelled with members of the Melbourne’s largest Hungarian community. The plan worked as the Russians began reacting to every bit of jeer with utmost indecency, with punches and kicks being exchanged from the very beginning. With the help of their legendary captain Dezső Gyarmati, Hungary soon amassed a hefty 4-0 lead.
Failing to pierce through Hungary’s impregnable zonal defense, the Russians started to panic. With only two minutes remaining, Ervin Zádor was asked to mark Russian Valentin Prokopov. “I said, ‘No problem. I can handle him,'” said Zádor. Prokopov was his country’s one of the finest players in the 1950s, but he will be forever be remembered for what happened in the next few minutes. With Zádor’s attention diverted towards the referee’s whistle, he rose out of the water to punch him with a vicious blow to 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. And I reached to my face and I felt warm blood pouring down.” said Ervin Zádor, after the game.
Pictures of Zádor’s injuries were published worldwide, and the match earned its moniker “Blood in the water”, though the reports claiming the water in the pool turned red were much of an exaggeration. The Swedish referee immediately blew the final whistle and Hungary were declared the winner. They went on to beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in the next game, claiming their 4th Olympic gold in Water polo.
In 2006, on the 50th anniversary of the attempted Hungarian Revolution, a documentary named Freedom’s Fury premiered, with its executive producers being Lucy Liu and Quentin Tarantino. It portrayed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and climaxed with the fierce water polo battle. Tarantino described it as “the best untold story ever”. The whole documentary was narrated by the legendary 9 times Olympics gold medalist American swimmer Mark Spitz, who was coached by Ervin Zádor in his early years.
Another feature film, titled Children of Glory, which shows the Hungarian Revolution through the eyes of a player and a female student leader was released in 2006. The movie appeared in Hungarian theatres during late October and was screened at the White House for President George W. Bush and other guests.