Water polo ought not be a violent sport. The rules clearly state that players are not allowed to push, shove, kick or otherwise attack their opponents. But it is difficult for referees to see beneath the water line, and it is not uncommon for players to emerge from a game covered with welts. This all stays beneath the surface, and spectators are none the wiser.

Except for one game, in which war rose above the water line.

Hungary vs. USSR

1956 Olympic Games — Melbourne, Australia

Here's two misconceptions Western observers have about the Olympic Games: That they're non-political, and that the Eastern Bloc ever existed.

The Olympics might say that they're just a playpen for the "youth of the world," but it's always been an arena for countries to show off and, rarely, for individuals to make political statements. Think of the World Trade Center flag presentation in Salt Lake 2002, or the U.S./Soviet boycotts of the '80s, or the Nazi Games of 1936, or John Carlos' black power salute on the medal stand in Mexico City 1968. The Olympics is a mass media event; how could it be apolitical?

As for the so-called Eastern Bloc, it was convienent for Western observers to match up the medal totals of democratic nations with communist nations and root for the "good guys." But just as how France wanted to beat West Germany, the Central and Eastern European nations wanted to beat the USSR. Perhaps more so, because those countries were still living under occupation. Look at the celebration in the Czech Republic after their gold-medal hockey win over Russia in Nagano 1998. Or, look at what happened in Melbourne, in the men's water polo semifinal, when Hungary took on the USSR.

The seeds were planted a few months before the games were to begin. In October of 1956, Hungary began an ill-fated revolt against the Soviet Union, hoping to create a democratic government. A few weeks later, some 200,000 Soviet troops entered the country, tanks rolled through Budapest, and the revolution was brutally ended.

The Hungarian water polo team, the defending Olympic champs, had to leave for Australia before they really knew what was going on. (The Games were held in late November to coincide with the Australian summer, and most teams got there ahead of time to acclimate.) By the time they reached Melbourne, they learned what they'd missed from the newspaper reports, and they were angry, worried and scared. Many players vowed to never return home.

Their outlet came when Hungary was scheduled to play the USSR in the semifinals of the medal round.

"We felt we were playing not just for ourselves but for every Hungarian," then-20-year-old forward Ervin Zador said. "This game was the only way we could fight back."

And fight they did. It was rough, physical, more like wrestling than water polo.

In scoring the first goal, Dezsö Gyarmati of Hungary, who would eventually win medals in five Olympics, nearly KO'd his Soviet opponent. Minutes later, the USSR's Vyacheslav Kurennoi was sent to the penalty box for slugging. Then the Soviet Union's Boris Markarov and Hungary's Antal Bolvari went at it. It was open warfare thereafter, with players from both teams trading blows and headlocks.
Sports Illustrated

The kicker came when Zador was sucker-punched with a minute left to play in the game and Hungary up 4-0, giving him a wound that required 13 stitches to close. The Hungarian supporters in the stands, many waving flags of the revolution, ran to the front railing and threatened to cause a riot. The Olympic officials declared the game over and gave the Soviet team a police escort out of the arena.

Hungary had won. They went on to soundly defeat Yugoslavia in the final, winning a gold medal. Zador was tearful on the medal podium and later said, "I was crying for Hungary because I knew I wouldn't be returning home."

Zador stayed true to his word for 46 years. He now lives in Stockton, California. It would be more than 30 years before Hungary gained independence.

6/1/2002 update: Twelve players from both teams met today in Budapest in the first reunion of the 1956 game. The meeting was organized by the makers of Freedom's Fury, a documentary film about the match and the Hungarian revolution. It was an altogether friendly reunion: "It should be clear that we never had any ill feelings toward the Russian people. It was just a match at the wrong time and the wrong place," a now-66-year-old Zador said.

Sports Illustrated, an excellent article by Ron Fimrite: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/events/1996/olympics/daily/july28/flashback.html
The Associated Press, http://www.canoe.ca/2000GamesWaterPolo/sep24_blood-ap.html