Blood In The Water & Why Sports Leaders Cannot Allow Warmongers To Use Sport As A Bargaining Chip In Their Olympic Power Games

2022-02-25 Reading Time: 10 minutes
Hungarian water polo player Ervin Zádor emerged from the Blood in the Water match at the 1956 Olympic Games - screenshot of video coverage of the match that included a famous AP shot

Editorial and archive: The Blood in the Water match, the name given to the water polo fight between Hungary and the USSR at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, offers lessons on appeasement and why sports organisations must banish Russia from all engagement in the way South Africa was excluded for decades because of apartheid.

The two reasons are not the same but they meet where the lesson screams from the page: the unacceptable must never be accepted, must be starved of oxygen, no compromise, including a refusal to allow young athletes to be used as pawns in a political power play.

Blood in the Water through to Beijing 2022, athletes have been used precisely in that way.

The message cannot be one that sports authorities ignore on a day when Ukraine, military, state, government and civilians, are under attack from military forces representing the bloody regime of Vladimir Putin and his mafia mob of thieves who stole the wealth of the Russian state in the years after the Soviet empire collapsed and have since used it to run what has become an Animal-Farm-style Orwellian regime.

UEFA Sets Tone For Sport Organisations’ Response To Russian Attack

Uefa today set the tone for all sports organisations when it confirmed that May’s Champions League final has been moved from St Petersburg to Paris in response to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.

F1 followed soon after by cancelling the Russian grand prix after Sebastian Vettel said he would not be going (see below).

The football final, scheduled to take have taken placed at the Gazprom Arena in Russia’s second-largest city on May 28 will now be held at the Stade de France in Paris.

Mates in sport, Infantino and Putin, with a bunch of other FIFA folk – courtesy of Jens Weinreich

Uefa also said that national and club teams from Ukraine and Russia would play home games at neutral venues “until further notice” in its tournaments. Ukraine’s Football Association had pressed Uefa and Fifa, respectively the European and global regulators for football, to remove Russia and its club sides from all international competition.

Russia and Ukraine are scheduled to play in the World Cup play-offs next month, a Fifa decision pending on whether that will go ahead. Also in doubt are Uefa Nations League games scheduled to feature Ukraine and Russian in June.

News bulletins are full of questions about whether Fifa will ban Russia from the World Cup this year. The picture just above may indicate why it may struggle with its decision.

Athletes, meanwhile, are being led by those with the courage and status to speak out and by athlete representative organisations such as Global Athlete:

F1 ace Sebastian Vettel also set the tone for sportsmen and women by saying that he will not race in the Russian Grand Prix if Formula 1 later this year. He told “For myself, my own opinion is I should not go, I will not go. I think it’s wrong to race in that country. I’m sorry for the people, innocent people who are losing their lives, getting killed for stupid reasons under a very strange and mad leadership.”

Meanwhile, support measures for athletes from Ukraine are being led by World Triathlon in a statement that stands out not for its strength but its loneliness in the real of Olympic sports federations when it comes to responses to the Russian attack on Ukraine:

Unprovoked Attack On A Sovereign Nation

Ukraine’s crime? It hasn’t committed one. And those it is accused of, such as “de-nazification” as justification for the attack on a sovereign country even though the president of Ukraine is Jewish, are blatantly fake. The attack is a flagrant breach of international law and some of what is unfolding may one day end up at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The people of Ukraine simply want to exercise their right to self-determination, to take their country in the direction they voted for not that long ago when installing the latest democratic government more than three decades after the crumbling Soviet Union gave up control of territories that it had no rightful claim to, as explained so well by journalist Anne Applebaum in this article at The Atlantic, entitled Calamity Again.

The Blood in the Water match from 1956, meanwhile, reminds us why an Olympic Charter that grants the “right” of autonomy to Olympic sport only on the basis of “political neutrality” has long been torched by the behaviour of those at the top table of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The infamous match took place on 6 December 1956 against the background of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and saw Hungary defeat the USSR 4–0 to retain the Olympic title. The Blood in the Water tag was coined after Hungarian player Ervin Zádor emerged from the last stages of the fight with blood pouring down his face. He had been punched by  Valentin Prokopov, a Soviet player who turned water polo into a gloves-off boxing bout that day in Melbourne.

Tensions between the USSR and Hungary were already high in sport because Soviet spies were said to have taken advantage of their country’s political control in Budapest to study and copy the training methods and tactics of the Olympic champion Hungarians.

That reality would later lead to suspicions that aspects of the GDR’s State Research Plan 14:25 were also in full flow in the Soviet Union. DDR Museums in the ‘new states’ of the reunified Federal Republic of Germany have displayed Russian-language packets of Oral Turinabol among items that could be found in the GDR, even though the key drug in the systematic doping of an estimated 10,000 athletes in East Germany, was developed and produced in East Germany.

While that does not prove use in sport, there are other contributing factors to take into account, including the fact that Putin was the chief KGB man based in Dresden, the capital of Saxony. Kreischa, the IOC-accredited laboratory used not to uncover cheating but to make sure it was never discovered beyond the Berlin Wall, is a 20-minute drive from the then home and office of the chief Soviet spy in place during the final 5 years of GDR dominance in specific Olympic sports among women. The question is clear: how plausible is it to believe that the lead intelligence officer in a KGB division based in the GDR did not know about the greatest scale of deception in the history of sport, or are we to assume he wasn’t very good at his job?

What we do know is that by 2014-15, it was becoming very clear that Putin was the man ultimately responsible for a sports culture that included the systematic doping of athletes in Russia. Two whole-nation suspensions from Olympic sport since have amounted to sanctions without teeth and, as such, ineffective. The evidence for that is obvious:

  • most Russian athletes have been able to continue to compete in all sports, the only thing unavailable to them a national flag to fly
  • Russia has continued to hoist big international events
  • Russians continue to play key roles at the top table of international sports governance
  • Putin was allowed to stand on a platform with Xi Jingping at the Olympic Games, Thomas Bach and the rest of the IOC at hand despite the supposed sanction on Russia. On that occasion, Put-on and Xi held private talks. Now, politicians and analysts around the world are asking: what did Putin tell Xi and what does the attack on Ukraine mean for Taiwan, for example? And what worth has an Olympic Charter that demands political neutrality when Olympic bosses are allowing the likes of Putin to use the Olympics as a PR exercise and a show of strength?

Back to 1956

Time travel back to October 23, 1956, when Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin had just turned 4, and we find the Olympic bosses preparing to turn a blind eye to the invasion of a country.

From the SwimVortex Archive, 2016, on the 60th anniversary of the Blood in the Water match.

The Blood in the Water match would unfold in the Olympic water polo semi-final on December 6, 1956, some six weeks after a October 23 demonstration by students of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics escalated into an uprising against the government in Budapest.

It took a week: on November 1, Soviet tanks began rolling into Hungary and between November 4 and 10 November forces crushed the uprising with air strikes, artillery bombardments, and tank-infantry actions.

The world-leading Hungarian water polo team was on camp in the hills around Budapest at the time and could hear the bomb blasts and gunfire and see the smoke rising above their capital city. They decamped to the then Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) for their safety and would only hear about the extent of damage done by the Soviet invasion when they arrived in Australia for the Olympics. In those days, there was no way to get in touch with family and friends back home and many of the athletes were unsure about the safety of their loved ones half way around the world.

The Olympics was a chance to stand up for those back home. Zádor would say after the Blood in the Water match: “We felt we were playing not just for ourselves but for our whole country.”

Expatriate Hungarians flooded to watch the match, some of them heading for the pool straight after watching boxer László Papp fight towards light middleweight gold. The crowd was distinctly anti-Soviet that day just six weeks after invasion.

The Blood In The Water Match

The Blood in the Water match was the focus of Freedom’s Fury, the documentary produced by Kristine Lacey, executive produced by Quentin TarantinoLucy Liu, Amy Sommer, Andrew G. Vajna and Thor Halvorssen. Narration was provided by 1972 man of the Munich Olympics Mark Spitz, the seven-times gold medallist who as a teenager had been coached by the Hungarian player with blood run-in down his face back in 1956, Ervin Zádor.

Further archive footage from the time:

Ervin Zádor would explain:

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. And I instantly said, ‘Oh my God, I won’t be able to play the next game.’

The fighting was not all one sided. The Hungarian team had agreed a strategy to taunt their opponents using the Russian language they had learned at school. Without explaining precisely what was said, Zádor would later note: “We had decided to try and make the Russians angry to distract them.”

Water polo had long been a game in which tactics included physical challenges between opponents banned in the letter of the law but largely unseen as judges struggled to see what was happening below the splash and wash.

In the blood in the water match, kicks and punches featured underwater from the start of the fight, according to those who played that day.

A punch thrown by Hungarian captain Dezső Gyarmati was caught on film. Update, 2017: The Hungarian team Captain’s role that day in Melbourne is well described by Harry Blutstein, an Australian journalist and author of Cold War Games: Spies, Subterfuge and Secret Operations at the 1956 Olympic Games. End update

Gyarmati’s wife, Eva Szekely, Olympic champion over 200m breaststroke in 1952 and silver medallist in the same event in 1956 as well as holder of six world records and winner of 44 national titles during her career, also travelled to Melbourne. Their 3-year-old daughter was left at home in Budapest with family: Andrea Gyarmati would become a swimmer to, and a fine one at that: she was 1970 double European champion and 1972 two-times Olympic medallist. When her mother passed away in February two years ago, Andrea penned some fine memories and reflections on her family history.

Meanwhile, back in 1956, the Hungarian and Soviet water polo players were hardly strangers and many had forged friendships across political lines. Gyarmati was mates with the Soviet team captain, Petre Mshvenieradze, for example. Mshvenieradze would often stay at Gyarmati’s house in Budapest but come the day in Melbourne, all best and friendships were off for a while.

Hungary was leading 4–0 when Zádor unleashed a stream of insults at Prokopov focussed on the Soviet player’s mother – and unprintable here. There were 90 seconds left on the clock. The referee blew the whistle and Zádor turned around, expecting a penalty to be called against the Soviets. With Zádor’s back turned, Prokopov rose out of the water and thumped the Hungarian in the face to produce one of the most infamous images in aquatics history: blood flowed from the gash that opened above Zádor’s right eye.

The referees called the game and Australian police officers escorted the players back to the locker room in order to avoid a bloody brawl. The Hungarian team went on to retain the title in a match against Yugoslavia but Zádor did not get clearance to play and would later describe having to watch the final from the bench as “the hardest one hour of my life.”

The CIA in The Crowd

By 1956, the Cold War had already reached sport and Americans agents were on hand in Melbourne to pick up any Soviet-bloc athletes who wanted asylum. Gyarmati and Zádor were among the 46 athletes who accepted the invitation to jump Soviet ship for a life in the United States.

Gyarmati lived there for a while before returning home to his family in Hungary and to play again for the Olympic water polo team. Zádor settled in California where he became a swim coach, among his pupils a young Mark Spitz. 

In the same year, 2006, that Freedom’s Fury was released, Children of Glory (Hungarian title: Szabadság, szerelem, meaning “Freedom, love”, after the lines of Sándor Petőfi, the martyred poet) showed the Hungarian Revolution through the eyes of a player on the water polo team and a young woman who is one of the student leaders.

End of archive


The Politics Of Sport

Thomas Bach raises a glass with Vladimir Putin

Since those heady days in 1956, sport has become ever-more politicised, not only because politicians use sport as a public-relations exercise and a way of showing how strong their nations and political ideologies are through the reflected strengths of athletes.

The past decade has seen Putin turn up the heat on using sport as a tool and weapon in his armoury, stretching to showing strength through a sports model that has included systematic doping of athletes, as Russian Whistleblowers have shown.

The cult of the leader and huge financial rewards in return for favours, both ways, is at the heart of reasons why we can say that Olympic leaders have set an Olympic torch to their Charter down the years, most notably with Putin in the past decade.

In a predictable response to the UEFA decision, Gazprom CEO and Uefa board member (two things that place politics and sport in the same room owing to obvious connections), Alexander Dyukov told the media today: “We believe that the decision to move the venue of the Champions League final was dictated by political reasons. The R.F.U. has always adhered to the principle of ‘sport is out of politics,’ and thus cannot support this decision.”

Says a man linked to a regime in a country that has poured more politics into sport than all the water that all the pools in the world could possibly hold.

Uefa’s decision today shows the way for the IOC and its international sports federations. Condemning the breaking of an Olympic Truce, as the IOC did yesterday, is like sending a sheep out to maul a wolf.

Time to keep the beast at bay. The only way to do that is to ban Russia from all sports events and bar Russia from hosting any international events for as long as any Russian forces remain in Ukraine, for as long as Russia continues to occupy a foreign, sovereign nation, and, should it turn out that way, for as long as the democratically elected Government of Ukraine is kept from the power vested in it by the people of Ukraine.

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