Blood in the water: The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne

World News Australia Radio’s Janos Zoltan and Szilvia Malik Game report.


On the eve of the London Olympics, some Australians of Hungarian origin have been reflecting on their involvement in Olympic drama in Australia, more than half a century ago. 

1956 was the year of the Melbourne Olympics, where an infamous ‘blood in the water’ scene played out during the waterpolo semi-final between the Soviet Union and Hungary. 

The match symbolised what had happened in Budapest just weeks earlier, when Soviet tanks had rolled in to end a short-lived revolution led by students.

When the Games were over in Melbourne, each member of the Hungarian Olympic team faced a decision: should they go back to a Soviet-occupied Hungary, or seek asylum?

This special feature by Janos Zoltan and Szilvia Malik Game.


REPORTER: On 23rd October, 1956, Hungarian university students marched onto the streets of the capital, Budapest, to protest against the pro-Soviet Communist government. 

Popular support for the protest grew into what later became known as the Hungarian Revolution.

Within days, Hungary had a new Prime Minister, Imre Nagy. 

But after he declared that the country planned to leave the Soviet bloc, the Soviet Union responded by sending in its army. 

Less than two weeks later, after thousands of people had been killed, Imre Nagy’s government had been overthrown, and the Soviet Union was in firm control of the country. 

The biggest wave of emigration in Hungary’s history had begun – with Australia agreeing to take an initial batch of 10,000 refugees.

During the last few days of the revolution, Hungarian National Radio continuously played Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.


REPORTER: Amid the turmoil in Hungary, the country’s Olympic team chosen for the Melbourne Games had been quickly evacuated by the Communist-led National Physical Education and Sports Committee. 

The athletes boarded a bus and headed to Communist Czechoslovakia, spending a couple of weeks in a training camp near Prague. 

The sportsmen and women were unsure whether they would be able to continue their planned trip to Australia.

There was nervousness in Czechoslovakia that members of the Hungarian team may have brought with them, anti-Soviet revolutionary tendencies. 

The Czechoslovak government provided the money to pay for two aircraft for the Hungarians to leave. 

After a draining week-long journey and several stop-overs, the team finally arrived at Melbourne’s Essendon airport.

Hundreds of Hungarian-Australians were waiting to welcome them – and to urge them to seek asylum in Australia.

When the local community members started singing the Hungarian national anthem, the athletes became very emotional. 

VOX POP: We arrived to Melbourne, we were sweaty, because we came from the tropics. Our clothes were ill-fitting and then…there is this crazy crowd…and then we can hear the Hungarian anthem. 

VOX POP: I had a horrible fever. I was shivering whereas I was wrapped in two blankets…and then we arrived and that respect that they welcomed us with, that is what kept me going.” 

VOX POP: …Hungarians. They all came and hugged us and we all had tears running down on our cheeks…it was extremely moving…hmmm.

VOX POP: So all of the Hungarians at the airport started singing the national anthem. And every single word of that anthem felt like a stab on my heart….I cried…Agnes Keleti (who later won four gold medals) stood next to me and she was weeping. It was mind-boggling.

VOX POP: Even if I just think about it, I get emotional. There are not many important things in life. But this definitely was.

VOX POP: We were welcomed with an exceptional ovation. There were girls there in Hungarian folk customs, and then they all started to sing the Hungarian anthem. 

REPORTER: Now 83 years old Ferenc Mohacsi, who won a bronze medal in kayaking in the Melbourne Olympics, recalls he was even offered couple of jobs by the local Hungarians. 

FERENC MOHACSI: They immediately invited us to the Hungarian Club, where we met up with Hungarians who immigrated here earlier. Many of them assured us that they will support us if we decide to stay. I worked as a technician back at home. I was invited to Ballarat to a Bowling Club, where I met a man. He said he had a factory where I could work as a manager or if I do not want to do that, I could become his wife’s chauffeur. 

REPORTER: Other members also received generosity from the Hungarian Australians.

VOX POP: Whatever we would want, they offered it to us. Cars, everything… 

VOX POP: We got on the bus that took us to the Olympic village. People gave us business cards, they pushed them through the bus windows. They urged us to call them if we want them to come and get us.

VOX POP: Suddenly I noticed that someone put something into my hand. Back then I had never seen a pound before, but when I looked down I saw that it was one Australian pound. When we got to the Olympic village I told my kayaker partner: look what I got! They put this into my hand. Then he turned to me and said: because you were so nice and shared this story with me, I will let you know a secret too. I got 5 pounds! So we put the money together and shared it. 

REPORTER: Even before the Melbourne Olympics began, the Hungarian national flag caused controversy in the Olympic village, in the suburb of Heidelberg, where the athletes lived during the Games.

The Australian organisers were flying the flags of each participating nation in the Olympic village as the teams started arriving. 

When members of the Hungarian team support staff spotted the Hungarian flag, featuring the hammer and sickle symbols of Communism, they were angry.

With the Hungarian athletes still in transit in Darwin, they decided to show their sympathy with the revolution.

A recently declassified document from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation reveals what happened. 

DOCUMENT TRANSCRIPT: Two transport drivers attached to the Hungarian Olympic delegation this morning tore down the Hungarian Communist flag of Hungary. All the leaders of the Hungarian delegation stood around and took no part in the action. About ten members of the team cheered and sang the national anthem as the new flag was hoisted. The action followed a telephone call from the Hungarian team to their Chef de Mission in Darwin. An official statement at the Village said that the replacement was made at the request of the Chef de Mission. 

REPORTER: When the leader of Hungary’s Olympic team landed in Melbourne he ordered a new flag to be flown with the national coat of arms, instead of the Communist symbols. 

Years later, the two Hungarian flags that were flown at the Melbourne Olympics came up for auction from the estate of the official who had been in charge of the Olympic village, and who had kept them as souvenirs.

Laszlo Hody, who arrived to Melbourne in 1957 as a refugee, was one of the members of the Hungarian-Australian community who helped to collect money to buy them. 

LASZLO HODY: Some of us here in the community, including myself, really wanted to purchase them. We believed this was very important. We did not want to keep them, but we wanted to send them back to Hungary. So we went to the auction and some bidders came from overseas. They pushed the price up. We only planned to spend 3500 dollars, because that is what people thought they would worth. But in the end the price went up to 6000. Luckily there was a Hungarian who did not wish to reveal his name and he matched the price, but only on one condition: if the flags to be sent to Hungary. 

REPORTER: Hody had represented Hungary in basketball in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, and would have represented Hungary again at the 1956 Olympics.

However, a decision was made at the last minute not to send a team to Melbourne, so instead, he went on to represent Australia at the 1964 Games in Tokyo.

LASZLO HODY: They brought out individual athletes, who cost less to win that gold, silver or bronze (instead of a team). So in 1956 I was not participating at the Olympics. In 1960 I was not a citizen of any country. I was in a limbo between Hungary and Australia. In 1962 in Baden-baden the National Olympics Committee decided that everyone can compete at the Games if they have been citizens of a country for at least 5 years. I applied for naturalisation in 1959, I did not have to wait for 5 years they were happy with 3 years. In 1952 in Helsinki I was the youngest member of the Hungarian basketball team and then in 1964 I was the oldest member of the Australian basketball team. With my 29 years I had to baby all of my 19 year-old teammates.

REPORTER: The Hungarian team flew their modified national flag at the Opening Ceremony at the Melbourne Olympics and were welcomed with loud cheers from the crowd. 

Melbourne-based Istvan Gogolak was amongst the spectators. 

ISTVAN GOGOLAK: Oh, the atmosphere was very good. The people could not wait for the event to start. We were all so glad to see the teams marching in. Everyone cheered for them (the Hungarians), because in Hungary there was a revolution, so the crowd really supported the Hungarians. I was so proud that the Hungarians were so respected, because of the revolution the Hungarian team was really celebrated. 

REPORTER: While the Hungarian athletes competed in Melbourne, their counterparts from some other countries missed out – as their governments protested over what had happened in Hungary. 

The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland all boycotted the Melbourne Olympics, because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. 

The relatively small Hungarian team ended up winning nine gold medals in Melbourne.

The last of these was won by the waterpolo team on the 7th of December. 

Just a day before, the Hungarian team successfully fought off the Soviets in the semi-finals, where the infamous ‘blood in the water’ scene took place.

One of the Hungarian players emerged from the pool with blood streaming down his face. 

The match was a symbol of what had happened in Budapest weeks earlier. 

Hungarian blood was shed by the Soviets. 

But in the swimming pool in Melbourne, at least, the Hungarians claimed the victory. 

The Hungarian team ended the Games fourth on the medal tally, after the Soviet Union, USA and Australia. 

The champion Hungarian swimmer Eva Szekely had won gold in the women’s 200 metres breaststroke in the previous Games in Helsinki, four years earlier. 

She had been expected to win gold in Melbourne, too, but says she was pre-occupied with worry about her two-year-old daughter back in Hungary, though she did manage to win silver.

EVA SZEKELY: I had lost 6 kilos by the time I got to compete. We left our daughter at home. We were both here. The child’s father was here, too…so it was not easy. At home I was still swimming world records. 

REPORTER: At the end of the Melbourne Games, confusing news from home made it hard for the Olympians to decide whether to return to Hungary or seek asylum in Australia. 

Mr Imre Vagyóczky, one of the kayakers, wrote the following notes in his diary. 

DIARY RECORD: 5th December, 1956. I have seen a news film about Budapest. It totally upset me. I am extremely nervous. The journalists constantly harass us with their questions about what is happening at home. I refuse to talk to them. There are many who want to stay here. I stayed up til very late. I cannot sleep.” 

In the end, out of the 111 Hungarian Olympians in Melbourne, almost half – a total of 48 – decided not to return to home.

DIARY RECORD: 7th December, Friday. Today is the big day. We are finally going home. I am so sick of the whole Olympics. Those who decided to stay are: Karpati, Domján, Zádor, Jenei, Martin, Rerich, Magay, Keresztes, Dömölki, Sákovits, Nagy Ambrus, Jekkelfalusy, Iglói, Babrián, SzÅ‘ke, Gyenge, Ács, Záborszky…

REPORTER: Most of the Hungarian athletes who stayed in Australia used it as a spring-board to get to America. 

The United States accepted them with open arms, on the condition that their state of origin was listed as the Philippines. 

A declassified letter from the Australian diplomatic mission in Manila reveals the following: 

Written on the 12th December in 1956 by the Australian Legation in Manila: 
As you no doubt know, arrangements are being made to receive the number of Hungarian Olympic athletes in the Unites States of America on a permanent basis, in order to comply with the American law they will be brought here and the Philippines will be their country of origin for the purpose of that law. The law also provides that the country of origin must issue a certificate of readmission if screening process should reveal that any person could not be received in the USA.

REPORTER: Once in America, the Olympians were taken on a so-called: Hungarian Freedom Tour, organised by the Sports Illustrated. 

The athletes explained what the tour entailed. 

VOX POP: So the question was: where are we going and what for?

VOX POP: A Hungarian who lived in America helped organise this very interesting tour.

VOX POP: They told us that the money we raised through this tour went to Hungarian refugees.

VOX POP: Back then, it was a big deal that you got to see America and you got to see all those places.

VOX POP: All in all we have seen the whole of America within three months.

VOX POP: In the beginning we did real fencing. But it was boring, no one cared about that. So in the end, we put on a real Hollywood show.

VOX POP: He flew in on a rope. Then he fought for me, using a sword. And I did some jumps on stage, like a gymnast.

VOX POP: In the end of the show I fell down and Hamori ran up to me with a sword to cut my head off or something like that and I shot him with a gun. This was the end of it.

VOX POP: So one of the men won and he hugged me and I gave him a kiss.

REPORTER: Some Hungarian athletes who did not live in the Olympic Village were oblivious to the Americans’ offer of a new life in the USA. 

Cecila Hartmann Bourke, who competed as a kayaker at the Games, stayed in Ballarat, where the kayaking and canoeing events took place.

Bourke believes the chance to travel to America or stay in Australia were mostly offered to people who were not married or had no children. 

CECILIA HARTMANN BOURKE: Yes, I did not know anything about it. It was so hush-hush. So secretive. But later on I have learned that a lot of people were offered places in America, especially the athletes and they promised that they will take them around America and whatever money they will make, it is theirs. I do not know how many of them, but kayakers, only one kayaker stayed here. Zoli Szigeti, I met up with him later on. But no, I did not know anything about it, I went home. I thought everybody goes home. 

REPORTER: Bourke could not wait to reunite with her little boy and husband, so got on a plane back to Hungary. 

CECILIA HARTMANN BOURKE: We went separately, as soon as somebody finished the sport they were in. I think there were two separate aeroplanes. Because canoeing was the very last of it all, so I went with the last aeroplane. There was talk about how we get home, but nothing about who is staying and who is going. 

REPORTER: When she arrived to Hungary Bourke reunited with her son and her parents, only to find that her husband had defected. 

She organised her own escape and met up with her husband in England, where they settled for a while.

It took them six years, but with the help of a British Members of Parliament they managed to get their son out of Hungary. 

CECILIA HARTMANN BOURKE: Well, in that part my Olympic status did help. Because when I went to the Member of Parliament, he was interested in that an Olympic person is there in his area. Yes, that was very useful for me then, because straight away he has done the work. It went on for 6 years, every six months I sent this message that I want my son, but they rejected my claim. And when this Member of Parliament helped, within two months my son was out.

REPORTER: However, a strange turn of fate brought Bourke and her family back to Melbourne, where they have been living for the past five decades.

CECILIA HARTMANN BOURKE: When my son arrived I wanted to come back to Australia, because I could not take the English weather. It was foggy and dark and I liked to sunshine. I said to my husband, I want to come back to Australia. And as British Citizens we had to pay ten pounds for each of us, so we were the ten pound Poms.