Blood in the water

Water polo is a small sport in Australia, as it is in most countries. Not many people take interest in it compared to rugby, cricket or AFL. Nevertheless, to my constant amazement almost any grown up Australian knows about that event between Hungary and the USSR at the Olympic games in Melbourne-56. It is famously known as the “Blood in the water match”. It shows how well the Western political propaganda machine can work.

The Melbourne Olympiad was held shortly after the USSR suppressed the uprising against the pro-Soviet government in Hungary. According to the media, the “Russians” (in fact they should be called “Soviets” as there were the athletes of Georgian, Ukrainian, Jewish and other backgrounds as well) “spilled” the Hungarian blood not only on the streets of Budapest but even at a sporting arena.


There are always two sides to any story. I was not in Melbourne at the time. I was not even born then. But I spent some time with several participants of that match when they were mentoring the young players of the Soviet team in the 70s. Among them were legendary Pyotr Mshvenieradze, Mikhail Rizhak and Boris Goykhman.

Their account of the events was somewhat different to what is commonly known in the
West. In a nutshell, every Soviet participant has been warned by the Olympic delegation’s leadership about the tense situation stemming from the events in Hungary. Prior to that match the water polo players were warned not to react to anything, including possible provocations. Many members of the team were recalling how Pyotr Mshvenieradze, who was a big man and played in the center-forward position, was hit in the face many times as were others. He never retaliated though. In the end, one of the Soviet less patient players did and that is where the “blood in the water” came from.

Anyway, that is the “other side of the story”. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Among the participants of that match from the Hungarian side was legendary Deszo Dyarmati. In the 70s he became Head coach of the successful Hungarian team. We became good friends but never spoke about the distant 1956 events.

Most of that match participants passed away. The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics seized to exist. The communist ideology, inspired by the Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ teachings, does not dominate in the “Eastern Block” societies anymore. But the Hungarian water polo school remains one of the best in the world. Unfortunately, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and ensued social upheaval negatively affected the sport’s development in this part of the world. I am extremely sorry that one of the world’s greatest schools in men’s water polo is in decline at present.

The Soviet water polo school evolved from the pre-World War Two period. In the 50s they were learning a lot from the Hungarians. From that time until mid-80s annual “friendly” matches were held twice a year – once in Hungary and once in the USSR. I remember that at the beginning of my tenure in the National team those events were great learning tests. Despite fierce rivalry in swimming pools at the European, world and Olympic tournaments, we became good friends with many Hungarian players. Among them were legendary Istvan Szivos, Istvan Gorgenyi, Endre Molnar, Tomas Farago, Gyorgy Gerendas, Gyorgy Horkay and many others. There were the times when Hungary beat us. On other occasions the USSR came on top. But these are different stories.

PS: I apologize for possible misspelling of the names.

About Erkin Эркин Shagaev Шагаев
European, world, Olympic champion, two times World Cup winner Чемпион Европы, мира, Олимпийских игр, двукратный обладатель Кубка мира

2 Responses to Blood in the water

  1. Simon Asher says:

    Erkin, I really enjoyed this article. Well done and thank you for your perspective.
    It is always interesting to review key moments in our life from another angle and this one hit a chord with me and I am sure many other water polo players.
    Keep up the fantastic work.
    – Simon Asher

  2. Thank you Simon. Appreciate your comments. Happy 2012 to you and family!

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