The most infamous match in water polo history

As the 1956 Revolution was happening in Hungary, athletes around the world were in the final stages of getting ready for that year’s Olympics in Melbourne. Hungary’s athletes had traveled to  a training camp in the city of Tata, about an hour west from Budapest where the fight was raging. News of the revolution’s victory and the formation of a democratic coalition government was followed by news of its defeat along with retaliations. Many among the athletes snuck out for a night or two to visit their families and loved ones to learn what was going on with them or to find out if they were in danger, although this obviously did not do much good for their preparations. Nonetheless, what did give the Hungarian athletes’ spirits a boost was that a few countries, such as the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted the Olympics in protest of the Soviet Union’s presence at the games following its invasion of Hungary.

The Hungarian athletes were not in the best frame of mind after arriving to Australia, for their thoughts were with their home and their loved ones. Despite all of this they still did a great job, winning nine gold, ten silver and seven bronze medals. (The team’s performance at the next Summer Olympics in Rome in 1960 reflected Hungary’s political difficulties, as the medal tally was lower, in no small part due to the many athletes who did not return in 1956).

The most talked about event at the Melbourne Olympics was the “Blood in the Water” match, where the Hungarian water polo team defeated the Soviet Union 4:0 on December 5th, 1956, thereby allowing them to advance to the final against Yugoslavia. The final score was not why the game has become so infamous, however, but for an incident during the game. This incident in question was when Soviet player Valentin Prokopov sucker-punched Hungarian player Ervin Zádor above the eye near the end of the match, which resulted in Zádor’s face being covered in blood. Photojournalists at the match took iconic photos of Zádor, and the next day the image of the bloodied player was on the cover of newspapers and magazines around the world. The pictures showed how hard-fought the match was between the two rivals, and to what extent the battles on the streets of Budapest had been transported to the Olympic pool in Melbourne. Just as the revolution had a bloody end, so did this match. The event provoked public outrage, many articles appeared about it, and tempers took some time to cool down.

The story for this unsportsmanlike incident did not end in 1956, however. A meeting between the two teams’ living members was organized in 2004 as part of the documentary Freedom’s Fury, but Prokopov did not attend owing to poor health. Consequently, the story remained unfinished, with Ervin Zádor stating in 2007: “I forgive him for that punch. We didn’t hate him or his team. They were not the ones who did that to our country. As for what happened in the pool, had it happened anywhere else, it would not have been sensational. What made it so was that it happened at the Olympics, a month after the revolution.”

Bence Csatári