Australia in 1956 was a sleepy little country. WWII was over a decade past, Menzies had been in power for 5 years, Patty Page or some song produced by Mitch Miller was virtually guaranteed to be playing on the local AM radio at any time, and announcers on the ABC would ensure they sounded as English as possible as they announced “Hell-air, this is the Air Bear Sair...”. It was a nation best described as comfortable, safe and desperately dull.
Things on the other side of the world were less so.
On 23 October 1956 a student demonstration in the Hungarian capital of Budapest grew quickly into a fully fledged movement to overthrow the Government controlled by the Hungarian (and Soviet Union controlled) Communist Party. On the 27th a new Government was declared with Imre Nagy as Prime Minister. It declared Hungary’s neutrality and removal from the Warsaw Pact, and also pledged to move towards a multi-party democracy.
On 4 November the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest; Nagy was arrested for treason (he would be executed in 1958), a puppet government was installed, and in the course of the fighting an estimated 2,500 people were killed.
While this was going on the Hungarian Water Polo team was in a training camp in the mountains around Budapest. They were quickly transported into Czechoslovakia to ensure they wouldn’t get caught in the violence.
A month later they were in Melbourne as defending Champions, and were drawn against the Soviet Union the in semi-finals.
The mood of the crowd before the match was, it is not overstating it, a little bit tenser than is usually the case before a water polo match – especially one in Melbourne in 1956. I’m guessing the water polo tickets weren’t exactly the hot item of purchase at the Olympics that year.
The Sydney Morning Herald report of the events describes the arena as being “packed with Hungarian migrants and other New Australians” (yes, those New Australians, can’t trust them - geez how condescending can you get, even for the 1950s?). I’m also guessing given the rather insular nature of Australia at the time, reportage of the Hungarian revolution would have been rather scant (though admittedly such an event probably wouldn’t get much more coverage now on the commercial media – can’t see A Current Affair or Today Tonight giving it too much time).
So in retrospect it shouldn’t be a surprise that the crowd was mostly “New Australians”, but given a chance, I would have rather been at this event than any of the others in Melbourne that Olympics.
What would occur was one of the few times where the lines of sport and real life blurred.
Commentators often get excited and refer to sport as a war or some such. Rarely is this the case – no one dies, the match has little impact on outside events, and outside events rarely have an impact on the field. But imagine being a member of that Hungarian team, a number of whom had been unable to get in contact with their families, when it came to that match.
Now during the cold war there was a lot made of USA v USSR contest, but in reality most of these were Rocky IV type events. The Soviet Union wasn’t invading America or vice versa, no Americans had to worry about Soviet tanks driving down their main street – all these contests were macho chest beating; an example of sport being “war without bullets” as George Orwell put it.
But for the Hungarians this was not hypothetical; their country had been invaded, people killed, and now they were to go up against a team representing all they hated.
Little wonder the crowd was a bit on the tense side.
The Hungarians (who had all been taught Russian at school) taunted and abused their opponents in a bid to unsettle them. And the whole match was played in a spirit of spite and anger. Both sides kicked and punched and the crowd repeatedly surged onto the pool deck, cheering each goal by the Hungarians.
Near the end of the match, with the Hungarians up 4-0, it seems the Soviet’s had had enough, and decided to respond. Valentine Prokopov, of Russia, swam up to Ervin Zador, of Hungary, and punched him in the eye while the ball was at the other end of the pool.
The crowd spilled onto the pool deck, police intervened to hold them back, and the crowd-announcer calmly repeated: "Will all persons not directly connected with the water polo kindly leave the concourse." (I can just imagine this done in that wonderful ABC style 1950s Australian voice).
Now this may not have been the greatest match in Olympic water polo history, or the most exciting (can’t go past the Australian women beating the Americans in the last second in Sydney), but when it comes to the "I wish I was there "moment, you have to go for the most memorable, and this one definitely fits the bill.
I would have loved to have been there with the new Aussies, yelling abuse at the Soviets, cheering, demanding justice; feeling a very small part of a struggle for something that mattered. For that brief moment, sleepy 1950s Australia was slightly less desperately dull.