When the Russians Played the Olympic Villain For a Lot More Than Just Doping

1956's "Blood in the Water" match between Hungary and the Soviet Union brought war to the pool.


Fire in the streets, blood in the water
Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

It was just over a decade after World War II and the people of Hungary had had quite enough of their "liberators" — the Soviet Union — and the repressive communist puppet state they installed after routing the Nazis.

Massive (but mostly peaceful) protests in October 1956 were met with a violent reaction by state police and the Hungarian citizenry fought back. In about a week the violence had ebbed, Hungary's reformist prime minister Imre Nagy — who had been sacked by Moscow about a year earlier — was back in office, and it seemed the revolution had been won.

As I wrote in a new column for The Week:

It was during this uneasy period of calm that part of the Hungarian Olympic team left the country on a three-week nautical journey to Melbourne aboard a Soviet ship (the rest of the national team would later fly out of Prague).

When the team arrived in Australia, they learned what had become of their revolution: It had been brutally crushed by the Soviets. Over 3,000 of their countrymen were dead. A few days later, Nagy would be arrested, and later tried in secret, then executed for treason.

This is the atmosphere in which the Hungarian water polo team faced down the Soviet team at the Melbourne Games. When it comes to geopolitics colliding with sport at the Olympics, the match between the two water polo powerhouses — which would come to be known as "Blood in the Water" — made the U.S. hockey team's 1980 "Miracle on Ice" over the Soviet team resemble a Disney movie. (Indeed, they did make a Disney movie about that hockey game.)

The "Blood in the Water" match included such highlights as:

The Hungarians called the Soviets "dirty bastards," and the Soviets countered that they were traitors. Flailing submarine sucker-punches were thrown, kicks were deployed, but Hungary's strategy worked. The flustered Soviets faced a 4-0 deficit late in the match.

With just two minutes to go, star Soviet player Valentin Prokopov was goaded by one too many Slavic "your mama" jokes from Zador and rose from the water, viciously punching his Hungarian rival in the face.

For a tale of metaphorical Olympic battle from a time when the Russian team was cast as the villain because of the brutal actions of its government, rather than for allegations of widespread doping, read the whole column here.

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  1. …made the U.S. hockey team’s 1980 “Miracle on Ice” over the Soviet team resemble a Disney movie.


  2. Ella . you think Victoria `s storry is astonishing… on saturday I bought themselves a Car after bringing in $7899 this – 5 weeks past and-more than, 10-k last munth . it’s by-far the best-job I have ever had . I began this 8-months ago and almost straight away started to earn minimum $77
    ?????????? http://www.factoryofincome.com

    1. A “Car” is much better than a “car”, yes?

      1. A capital idea, wot.

  3. The CIA’s finest moment.

    1. The Hungarians still put blame on Radio Free Europe (CIA).

      1. They should. Frank Wisner couldn’t live with what the CIA did in 1956.

  4. For a tale of metaphorical Olympic battle from a time when the Russian team was cast as the villain because of the brutal actions of its government, rather than for allegations of widespread doping, read the whole column here.

    Fortunately the Russian government is much less brutal now…well, not counting invading Georgia and Ukraine…killing reporters and exiles, and imprisoning political opponents…threatening the freedom of Eastern Europe….

      1. No, I’m sure the facilities have much more refined and official sounding names.

      2. And no Lenin and Stalin!

  5. Facepalm.

    It can be very confusing to figure out who specifically is cheating these days. This much is clear; in recent years Russia has taken doping to a diabolical new low. And the fact that 70% of it’s Olympic team is in Rio, including swimmers like breathstroker Yulia Efimova, is a travesty. to put this in perspective; if the US had lead a similar doping program it would’ve been led by a member of President Obama’s cabinet. It would’ve included the US Olympic Committe, the FBI or the CIA, or both, and the US anti-doping agency. It would’ve involved hundreds of US athletes and gone on for years. Resulting in the outright stealing of dozens, if not hundreds of titles and medals. That’s what Russia did.



    1. Play by the rules or don’t play. It’s quite simple, really.

      1. Well, the athletes are gonna dope anyway. The entire story was cached in a segment littered with libertarian notions such as, “If you ban drug X, the athletes will just turn to drug Y”.

        It just struck me as exceptionally absurd that the notion of a member of the Presidents’ cabinet could collude with the attorney general or the head of the FBI to influence sports outcomes is somehow so corrupt it’s borderline unfathomable and only possible in the hell on Earth that is Russia. But email leaks, Foundation Funding, Benghazi are less important or even non-issues relative to which athletes may or may not be using which drugs (to lose).

    2. obligatory: That is Dope!

  6. countered that they were traitors

    Ok, so this isn’t new. I’m repeatedly smdh at movies where they’re like “you’re a traitor!” at people who WERE NEVER , even ostensibly, ON YOUR SIDE TO BEGIN WITH. No betrayal, no traitor. Learn a more appropriate term, screenwriters, like: adversary, enemy, cisheteroshitlord, etc

    dictionary.com, thesaurus.com, YW,HAND

    1. One of many reasons that treason is the dumbest of crimes.

    2. …fascist, racist…

    3. Exactly my thoughts.

    4. star wars is a big offender here, but on a related note I had a good laugh during a recent replay of Revenge of the Sith when Anakin kills Dookie then refers to him as an ‘unarmed prisoner’. Since he just sliced his arms off. HA! I don’t think the joke was intentional, just another gem of the slapdashery that is Lucas dialogue.

  7. For the warbonered curious, that’s a T55 tank in the photo with its turret blown off and landing behind the chassis with the crowd surrounding the turret and examining it.

    1. Hmmmm, I’ve seen such up close… http://miserabledonuts.blogspo…..n-sky.html

      1. Yep – you were in Afghanistan and/or Iraq, if I recall.

  8. Sometimes I just read the Reason articles.

  9. ….made the U.S. hockey team’s 1980 “Miracle on Ice” over the Soviet team resemble a Disney movie.

    Bah! If you want to talk U.S. teams versus the Commies, only the Red Army Team’s 1976 loss to the Broad Street Bullies is truly worthy of mention. When you can leave the Russian army bitching, pissing and moaning about how mean you are, then you’ve got my attention.

    1. U.S. based team filled with Oglethorpe Canadians. But Holmgren makes up for it! Call it North American.


  10. After the game, knowing what would happen to them if they went back to Hungary, a lot of the players sought asylum. Zador moved to the United States and ended up working as a swim coach. His most famous student was Mark Spitz.

    Outside of being angry because of what was happening in Hungary as a result of the revolution, it was a match strategy for the Hungarians to piss off the Soviets. Worked, too.

  11. Good advice, thanks for posting.

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