Blood in the Water at the 1956 Olympics

Political turmoil between Hungary and the Soviet Union spills over into an Olympic water polo match

Ervin Zador
Hungarian water polo player Ervin Zador's eye is injured during the closing minutes of a game against the Soviets. Bettmann/Corbis

The scar is slight, just a little half-moon over Ervin Zador's right eye, a remnant from the most famous water polo game in Olympic history. In December 1956, just a month after the Soviet Union had crushed a Hungarian revolt in Budapest, the two nations' teams met in a brutal match at the Melbourne Games that came to be known as the "Blood on the Water" game. Officials ended it before time expired when a Soviet player sucker-punched Zador.

A wire-service photograph of Zador, standing on the pool deck in his trunks, dazed, blood streaming down his face, was published in newspapers and magazines around the world. The picture presaged the political nature of the modern Olympics, which would be dominated by intense East-West rivalry for decades.

Zador, who defected to the United States after the Olympics, along with about half of the 100-member Hungarian team, is now 73, a swimming coach in the small Northern California town of Ripon. "I deeply regret that picture," he said in a recent interview. "I would have loved to be remembered as one of the best young players in the world, rather than the guy hit by the Russian."

At the time, Zador was a 21-year-old college student. When the Hungarian revolt began, in October 1956, he and his teammates were training at a mountain camp outside Budapest. They could hear gunfire and could see puffs of smoke in the city. Before they could determine the outcome, they were bused out of the country and flown from Czechoslovakia to Melbourne. At the Olympic Village, Zador recalled, they were desperate for news. A water polo player who was fluent in English read a Melbourne newspaper and told his teammates what had happened: after freedom fighters had tried to overthrow the Soviet-dominated Communist regime and establish a democratic government, about 200,000 Russian troops poured across the Hungarian border, their tanks rumbling through the streets of Budapest. They left more than 5,000 people dead. The first thing the water polo players did in the Olympic Village was tear down the Hungarian flag with the Communist emblem and replace it with the banner of Free Hungary.

During the preliminary rounds, the Hungarian players were distracted and dispirited, uncertain about their futures, worried about their families back home. But the team, considered one of the best in Olympic history, easily advanced. Water polo is a major sport in Eastern Europe, and the Hungarians have long been a dominant power, winning eight Olympic gold medals, more than any other country. Water polo games between the Soviets and the Hungarians were traditionally rough and intensely emotional, the political undercurrent always roiling the waters. In the past there had been locker-room brawls and fights in the pool. Nick Martin, a star of the Hungarian team who is now 76 and teaches French at Pasadena City College, told me that at a tournament in Hungary before the Olympics, fans turned their backs when the Russian team was introduced and clapped their hands for hours to prevent the playing of the Soviet national anthem.

Before water polo games, the captains of the two teams customarily meet at poolside with the referee and shake hands. At the 1956 Olympics, the Hungarian captain refused to shake. The crowd of more than 5,000 people who crammed the Melbourne natatorium was dominated by Hungarian expatriates, who shouted, "Hajra Magyarok!" (Go Hungarians!), waved flags and shouted epithets as the Soviet players were introduced. "We always had an extra incentive when we played the Soviets, but the atmosphere at Melbourne was another dimension," Zador said. "The game meant so much to us. We had to win the gold medal. We were playing for ourselves, for our families back home, for our country."

Within the game's first minute, a Russian player put a hammerlock on a Hungarian and was sent to the penalty box as the crowd jeered. A Hungarian player scored the first goal, punching a Russian player on the chin with a windmill motion while shooting. The Hungarians scored three more goals, including two by Zador. They taunted the Russians, who were being shut out and becoming increasingly frustrated. Two more Russians were sent to the penalty box after slugging Hungarian players.

"We were yelling at them, 'You dirty bastards. You come over and bomb our country,' " Zador said. "They were calling us traitors. There was fighting above the water and fighting beneath the water."

The Hungarians were leading, 4-0, with a minute left in the game when Zador heard a whistle. He looked at the other end of the pool, toward the referee, making the mistake of taking his eye off the man guarding him. In that instant, the Russian player rose out of the water and punched Zador in the eye. Irate Hungarian fans spilled out of the stands and crowded around the pool deck, haranguing and threatening the Russian players. The referee called the game to prevent a brawl. As police escorted the Russians to their locker room, Zador was sent to the first aid center, where he received eight stitches. His eye was so swollen he had to watch from the pool deck as Hungary defeated Yugoslavia, 2-1, in the championship game. He wore street clothes instead of a sweatsuit as he stood on the gold medal platform with his teammates. The moment was so emotional for him, he recalled, that his whole body was shaking. He was laughing and he was crying at the same time—crying, he said, for Hungary. He knew he would not return home.

Of all the members of the Hungarian water polo team who defected to the United States, Zador's sacrifice was the greatest, in Nick Martin's estimation. "Most of us were older and our careers were coming to an end," Martin said. "Ervin was the youngest player on the team. He could have been one of the best—if not the best—in the world. Water polo is the second most popular sport in Hungary, after soccer. Ervin would have been a major star in Hungary for many years—a national institution."

When Zador arrived in San Francisco, water polo was in its infancy in the United States. He briefly joined a club team, but the level of play was so primitive he soon lost interest and turned to coaching swimming. More than five decades after he retired from the game, Zador said, he still feels a void, but he has never regretted his decision to defect. The opportunity to speak his mind, to live in freedom, was of paramount importance to him. He eventually brought his parents and brother to the United States, and he compensated for his lost career by watching his son and daughter, both of whom played water polo in college. His daughter, Christine, who received a scholarship to USC, scored the winning goal in the 1999 NCAA championship game against Stanford.

Last March and April, when Zador read about activists disrupting the Olympic torch relay to protest China's crackdown in Tibet, he was saddened. "I wish sports could be exempt from politics," he said. "But that's just a dream. It'll never happen."

Miles Corwin, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the author of three books, teaches literary journalism at the University of California at Irvine.

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