When The Olympics & Politics Mix: #5 – The 1956 ‘Boycott’ Games

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The Olympics have come a long way in the last 116 years. In 1896, a meagre 241 strictly-male athletes, from 14 countries, competed in Athens; whilst over 14,000 competitors from 200 different nations will descended on London this summer.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the Olympics importance outside of the sporting world. Despite chapter five of the Olympic charter stating that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted,”  the Games have become intertwined with world events and politics with boycotts, terrorism and protests to name just a few instances over the years,

The reality is that the Olympics have always been more than just about sport. So, in honour of the upcoming London 2012 games, the politics section of Wessex Scene are going to give a run down of the top 5 most politicized Olympics. Enjoy.

We begin the countdown in 1956 in Melbourne; the first games to be held outside of North America and Europe. On the track, 18-year old Australian Betty Cuthbert and 21-year old American Bobby Morrow took the 100m, 200m and 4x100m triple gold, Australia dominated in the pool, and the two Germanys competed together under one flag.

However, it was those who weren’t competing that overshadowed the games with a series of three different boycotts – the first of the modern Olympic era.

For China, it was the start of a lengthy withdrawal, as they pulled out only two weeks before the event started. This was due to the IOCC recognition and involvement of the Republic of China (Taiwan); at the time, the relationship between the two was extremely frosty; only 7 years earlier, the Communist revolution had prompted leaders to flee to the island of Formosa, where they formed the Chinese Nationalist government with the belief that it was the rightful government of the entire Chinese state.

China, in response, did not compete again until 1984; with the issue remaining unresolved until the 1979 Nagoya Resolution, where Taiwan accepted competing as ‘Chinese Taipei’.

Yet, it was two far more significant events that loomed over the games.

The first was the Suez Crisis; after years of tension and diplomacy, the new Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal on July 26th. The Canal, which connects the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, was of prime strategic economic and military importance to Britain and the West. He also blockaded the straits of Tiran, Israel’s only outlet to the Red Sea. Consequently, in order to keep up British prestige, Anthony Eden ordered an military intervention into the affair.

Joined by France and Israel, Britain invaded Egypt in order to reclaim the canal zone; Nasser responding by deliberately sinking ships along the waterway. And, despite military success, the invasion faced fierce global criticism. Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted the Olympics in response and Egypt eventually won support as the US, UN and USSR pressured the Anglo-French contingent to end its occupation. It effectively brought the end of European power in the world.

The third event to tarnish the games went beyond that of a boycott. On 23rd October 1956 in Hungary, a student demonstration turned ugly, causing a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the Communist Soviet-puppet regime. Days later, the government fell and was quickly replaced with new leaders who disbanded the secret police, wanted out of the Warsaw Pact and aimed to create democratic governance in the nation.

Early signs suggested that the Soviet Union would withdrawal its influence; instead, the superpower responded instead with all its military might. On November 4th, 200,000 troops and tanks rolled into Hungary, brutally suppressed the fledgling revolution. Over 5,000 people died in the conflict with many more fleeing in what was a truly crushing statement of power by the USSR. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland withdrew from the games in protest. 

These tensions infamously spilled out over into the games when the USSR were drawn against Hungary in the semi-final of the water-polo competition. The Hungary team, who were defending Olympic champions, had witnessed the success of the revolution from their Budapest training camp but were forced out of the country by the Soviets to avoid being caught up in the conflict. Consequently, the players only knew the true extent of the violence, as well as news of their family and friends, days later whilst en route to Melbourne.

The match thus took on a much greater importance – no longer just a mere water-polo game, but a grudge rivalry of geopolitical significance as well as a fight for Hungarian honour. Water-polo is known for its roughness; but this match reached a new levels of verbal taunts and below-the-waterline violence of kicks, gouging and punches, becoming the most notorious sporting event in Olympic history.

We felt we were playing not just for ourselves but for every Hungarian. This game was the only way we could fight back.

Ervin Zádor

The crowd, containing many Hungarian expatriates, waved flags of the revolution, shouted Hajra Magyarok! (Go Hungary) and booed the Soviet players. The players themselves soon took revenge out of each other; with the Hungary players winding up their opponents as a tactic; Hungarian captain, Dezso Gyarmati, seen punching a Russian player; and a spate of penalty calls. On the sporting side, Hungary dominated, gradually accumulating a 4-0 lead.

Two minutes from the end, events turned even uglier as Hungarian player Ervin Zádor emerged out of the pool with blood pouring out from eye after being punched by Soviet player Valentin Prokopov after a series of verbal exchanges. The spectators witnessing the event began taking out their anger on the Russian player, spitting, abusing and throwing missles at them with a riot only being avoided by police intervention. The match was stopped also with the horrified referee awarding the game to Hungary for their hefty lead.

The incident gave the contest the name “Blood In The Water match”, though stories that the pool became red with blood were exaggerated, with Zádor becoming a worldwide symbol of the Hungarians’ plight.

The story even became a Quentin Tarantino produced documentary, Freedom’s Fury, with Taratino describing as “the best untold story ever”. (To hear a good documentary on it, the BBC also have this)

And luckily, there was a Hollywood ending for it all, as Hungary went on to beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in the gold medal match. However, many of the Hungarian players never returned home for many years – with Zador crying at the medal ceremony knowing this – as they sought refuge in the West rather than return to Communist Hungary.

Next Up: #4: The 1980 & 1980 Cold War Games


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