THE start of the 2016 Olympics in Rio marks almost 60 years since an ugly political stoush between Hungary and the Soviet Union was violently played out in a Melbourne pool.
In 1956 Melbourne was the focus of the world as it hosted the Olympic Games. In the same year the Hungarian capital Budapest was in turmoil as an uprising started by students was quashed in a bloody struggle that saw Soviet tanks roll through the streets.
Unrest had bubbled over after widespread frustration with Hungary’s communist and pro-Soviet government.
A colourised image of Ervin Zador of Hungary emerging from the pool during the 1956 match against Russia.
The Olympic water polo venue for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, now part of the Holden Centre at Olympic Park.
Throughout the uprising from October 23 until November 10, hundreds were shot and about 200,000 people were displaced. The lingering affect of arrests and dissident crackdowns lasted for months longer.
Shortly after the main period of violence, the Russian and Hungarian water polo teams found themselves facing off in the Olympic semi final.
Aside from obvious concerns about in-game violence in the heated competition, members of the Hungarian team were also faced with a decision about whether to return home at all, or to seek asylum in Melbourne.
The conflict in Hungary had seen tens of thousands of people flee across borders, many of whom had been accepted in Australia.
When the Hungarian Olympic team arrived at Essendon Airport, a crowd of Hungarians welcomed them, sang the anthem and implored them to stay in Australian after the Olympics.
Hungarians gather around the body of a fighter killed in the 1956 Budapest uprising.
Hungarian rebels on tank wave the national flag at the main square in front of the House of Parliament in Budapest, 1956.
The athletes had endured a tense few weeks in transit, travelling from Hungary to communist Czechoslovakia for training, were suspicions hung over them after the October uprising.
Controversy enveloped the team’s stay in the Heidelberg Olympic village, with team officials furious a Hungarian flag was displayed defaced with the communist hammer and sickle.
After an order from the Chef de Mission, a new flag was hoisted that instead featured the Hungarian coat of arms.
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The altered flag was even paraded at the opening ceremony, and was met with cheers from an enthusiastic crowd, angering Russian competitors.
By the time the water polo semi final came around on December 6, the scene was well and truly set.
Among the Hungarian squad was 21-year-old Ervin Zador, who would be helped from the pool with a gash on his face, captured by a photographer as lasting icon of the bloody match.
He told The Independent in 2006 that the Hungarians at first employed defensive tactics, and taunted their opponents in Russian.
An injured member of Hungarian water polo team after competing against Russia in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.
“We spoke their language — back home we had all been made to learn two hours of Russian every day — and so we were able to tell them how much we disliked them, and their families. And soon they were fighting,” he said.
The game soon became violent with underwater kicks and even blatant punches.
Zador’s team mate asked him to play against Russian Valentin Prokopov.
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“So I looked after Prokopov for the last few minutes, and I told him that he was a loser, and that his family were losers and so on,” Zador told The Independent.
“There was no problem until I made a huge error. I looked up to question why the referee had blown his whistle.
The Olympic pool used for a water polo match during the 1956 Games.
“I shouldn’t have taken my eye off Prokopov. The next thing I saw, he had his full upper body out of the water and he was swinging at my head with an open arm.”
The hit caused the crowd to go into a fury and spectators even attempted to jump barricades to the pool side, prompting guards and police to intervene.
The game was called a minute short with Hungary declared the winner 4-0 and the Soviet team was escorted from the pool arena by police.
In the subsequent final match, the Hungarian team defeated Yugoslavia 2-1 and claimed the gold medal.
via: Mitchell Toy, Herald Sun