On the 6th December 1956, the “Blood in the Water” water polo match took place between the USSR and Hungary. A semi-final in the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympic Games, the game is famous as a result of the violence that marked the game. It gained its nickname, and ended, after a Hungarian player was punched by one of the Russian opponents so hard that it drew blood.
The match was played just weeks after the USSR’s crackdown of the Hungarian Revolution. At the time the Hungarian team – who were reigning champions – were training outside Budapest but were able to hear gunshots and see smoke as the fighting intensified in the city after Soviet tanks moved in on the 1st November.
Having been moved to communist Czechoslovakia to complete their training and avoid getting caught up in events at home, the scale of the USSR’s response to the uprising only became clear to the Hungarians after they arrived in Australia. Facing the Soviet Union in the semi-final, they quickly realised that this provided an opportunity to regain some national pride against their oppressors.
The game was violent from the start with verbal abuse, kicks and punches being thrown by both sides. The Hungarians outplayed the USSR throughout the match and were leading 4-0 when Russian Valentin Prokopov punched Hungarian Ervin Zádor in the final quarter. As he climbed out of the pool with blood streaming down his face, the pro-Hungarian crowd went wild.
Hungary went on to win gold against Yugoslavia but many of the Hungarian team didn’t return home afterwards, instead seeking asylum in the West.