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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

When Games Turn Bloody

It Was Much More Than a Water Polo Game When Hungary Played and Defeated the Soviet Union Only Weeks After Russian Invasion on the Way to Satisfying Gold Medal in 1956.

September 22, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Ervin Zador remembers. All the bloody details.

How a water polo game 44 years ago between Hungary and the Soviet Union became a grudge match, one of those electric moments in sports that become part not just of enduring Olympic lore but of the fabric of two nations.

What it was like to play for the Hungarian team only four weeks after Soviet tanks had brutally crushed an incipient democratic revolution in Hungary? How did it feel to get sucker-punched by one of the Soviets, a blow so sudden and violent it opened a cut near his eye that sent blood streaming into the pool?

"You bet it hurt," he said.

He also remembers how delicious it felt later--when the Hungarians beat the Soviets, then went on to win the gold medal. The Hungarian team ascended the medal stand and looked down at the Soviets, who had taken the bronze. Payback, baby.

"I'm standing on top of you, you turkey," Zador remembers thinking. "It's an awesome, awesome feeling."

So much has changed in the world since the Melbourne Summer Games in 1956, when the Hungarians played the Soviets in that water polo game that had repercussion far beyond the final score.

But as the men's water polo competition at the Sydney Games gets underway here Saturday, there surely will be a pause to remember what the world was like back then, and what happened in the pool 44 years ago--when there was blood in the water.

Zador, one of the stars of the Hungarian team, has never forgotten. How could he?

"It was a general hate," he said, recalling the feeling in the streets of Budapest in the fall of 1956 toward all things Soviet.

"The whole nation hated the Soviets," he added in a lengthy telephone interview with The Times from his Stockton home. "I had no particular reason. I'd been twice to Moscow. I spoke Russian. It was a miserable country. Essentially they lived worse than we did, which was really strange since they took everything we had and still lived worse than we did."

Zador is now 65. At the time, he was 21, a student at the University of Budapest more interested in water polo than in his studies.

The Melbourne Games were in November. The Hungarians were the defending Olympic champions in water polo.

Hungary was a communist satellite of the Soviet Union.

Life in Hungary was hard.

"My father was a newspaper writer," Zador said. "He was in the upper 10% of earnings in Hungary. He had to work all day to make enough to buy two pounds of chicken."

On Oct. 23, 1956, a band of Hungarian freedom fighters revolted against the Soviet-dominated communist regime in Budapest, aiming to supplant it with a democratic government.

The revolt gained momentum. Soviet troops withdrew.

But only briefly.

On Nov. 4, about 200,000 Soviet troops poured across the Hungarian border. Tanks rumbled through the streets of Budapest.

When the insurrection began, the water polo team was training at a camp outside the city. The players could hear gunfire and see smoke.

But before they could learn what was happening, they were hustled onto a bus and across the border into Czechoslovakia. From there, they were dispatched to the Games, via a propeller-driven plane that took three days to get to Darwin, in north-central Australia.

There, one of the players who spoke English read in a newspaper about what had happened on Nov. 4 in Budapest. Zador, who had brought virtually nothing with him--he said he had deliberately kept his bags all but empty so he could stock up on Western goods--stood up and told his teammates, "That's it. I'm not going home. Why not? I had nothing with me. No clothing, nothing."

More than half the team felt the same.

"We figured if it was bad before, it was going to be much worse," he said.

In Melbourne, the Hungarians and the Soviets moved easily through the preliminary rounds, then met in the pool on Dec. 6.

News accounts describe the scene: Hundreds of Hungarian expatriates in the crowd of 5,500 waved the flag of freedom the revolutionaries had used. They jeered the Soviets. They roared as each member of the Hungarian team was announced.

Once in the pool, the Hungarians started trash-talking.

"We were agitating them," Zador recalls. "Some of it is not printable. Some is: 'You are communists. You kill Hungarians.' "

He added a moment later, "We simply wanted an advantage. You lose control, you don't play well. That's what we wanted. We wanted them to fight instead of play. And that's what we did."

The game was only one minute old when the Soviet Union's Peter Mchvenieradze put a hammerlock on a Hungarian player, and was sent to the penalty box.

Dezso Gyarmati of Hungary scored.

A few minutes later, another Soviet, Vyacheslav Kurennoi, was sent to the penalty box for slugging a Hungarian.

As the second half started, the Soviets' Boris Markarov threw yet another punch, this one at Hungary's Antal Bolvari.

With only a minute to play, the Hungarians led, 4-0. At that point, Zador heard a referee's whistle and looked away from the man guarding him, Valentin Prokopov.

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