Philip Barker ©ITG

This week at the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) General Assembly in Seoul, there were heated exchanges as the debate on the readmission of Russia to international sport reached a crescendo.

As revealed by insidethegames, the British Olympic Association declined to attend the ANOC General Assembly in protest at the presence of officials from Russia and Danish delegates walked out on an address by an official.

Russian participation in major international sport had been suspended in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, shortly after the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

In a U-turn shortly before the Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Andrew Parsons spoke of threats of a boycott if the Russians were allowed to compete and suggested they would not be a "viable" Games.

He hinted at hostility in the athletes village if Russian athletes came face to face with those from Ukraine or other nations.

International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons insisted the ban on Russia and Belarus was necessary to protect the
International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons insisted the ban on Russia and Belarus was necessary to protect the "viability" of the Games ©Getty Images

It was a scenario that did come to pass at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics which took place only days after Russian tanks were ordered onto the streets of the Hungarian capital Budapest.

In 1956, Hungary was part of an 'Eastern bloc' in the Soviet sphere of influence behind what had been described as an "Iron Curtain".

Earlier in the year, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had made a speech in which he denounced the brutality of the previous era under the much feared and hated former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Although it was known as the "secret speech" it is thought to have prompted moves for some degree of liberalisation in Hungary.

On this very weekend 66 years ago, students in Budapest had demanded an "independent Hungarian internal and foreign policy to represent the best interests of the nation".

They opposed the Soviet-influenced Government and called for the installation of Imre Nagy as the Hungarian leader.

A 15-point document included a call for freedom of travel, an increase in wages, freedom of the press and autonomy for the universities.

A statue of Stalin was pulled down by protesters in Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian uprising ©Getty Images
A statue of Stalin was pulled down by protesters in Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian uprising ©Getty Images

Their calls found a resonance with the public who came onto the streets in large numbers.

Budapest still had many Soviet symbols and a giant bust of Stalin was hauled to the ground by protesters.

Communist chief Ernő Gerő responded in uncompromising terms and the police opened fire, causing casualties.

Although at first, it seemed as though the uprising had succeeded, a few days later Soviet tanks moved onto the streets to restore order.

János Kádár was installed as the new hardline leader of Hungary, Nagy was arrested and eventually executed by the regime.

Many countries condemned the response to the uprising but Western Governments remained hesitant about any military action.

Soviet tanks were ordered onto the streets of Budapest to quell the Hungarian uprising in 1956 ©Getty Images
Soviet tanks were ordered onto the streets of Budapest to quell the Hungarian uprising in 1956 ©Getty Images

Meanwhile, Hungarian athletes remained determined to compete in the Melbourne Olympics and a party left Budapest for Czechoslovakia in a bus draped with an Olympic flag.

"They put the Olympic rings on the bus to show it was Olympic and not trouble makers," 1500 metres runner László Tábori told Sports Illustrated magazine many years later.

The official Olympic Review also recorded the help given by International Olympic Committee (IOC) chancellor Otto Mayer in helping the team to reach Melbourne.

"He had succeeded in getting the Hungarian team from Budapest to Prague, the first modern Olympic truce," it said. 

"He subsequently helped it obtain plane accommodations (sic) to Melbourne."

When they arrived on Australian soil, they received a wildly enthusiastic welcome.

Many of those who greeted the team waved flags bearing the pre-communist Kossuth coat of arms or flags with the Communist emblem cut out as had been seen in Budapest.

A declassified Australian security services document later gave details of an incident when the party reached Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory.

"Two transport drivers attached to the Hungarian Olympic delegation this morning tore down the Hungarian Communist flag of Hungary," the dossier revealed.

It was replaced with a flag which bore the arms of the Pre-Communist Hungarian state, known as the Kossuth arms.

An official statement at the Village said that "the replacement was made at the request of the Chef de Mission".

At the Olympic Opening Ceremony held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 1952 hammer gold medallist József Csermák carried the Hungarian flag which also displayed the Kossuth arms as the team entered the stadium.

Much later in the parade, the Soviet Union marched into the ground.

Competitors from the Soviet Union were permitted to compete at the Melbourne 1956  Games despite calls for them to be excluded ©Getty Images
Competitors from the Soviet Union were permitted to compete at the Melbourne 1956  Games despite calls for them to be excluded ©Getty Images

A total of 67 nations took part but there were some notable absentees.

The Swiss Olympic Committee (SOC) had decided that they would only send a team if every national sports governing body was happy to send a team.

The Central Committee of the Federal Society of Gymnastics (FSG) held an extraordinary session in Olten and after a long meeting they revealed their decision.

"The Federal Gymnastics Society will not be associated with the Olympic Games in Melbourne," it said. 

"This decision is motivated by the incompatibility between the current international situation and the Olympic ideal. 

"The committee and with it, all the gymnasts, regret that the participation of our gymnasts is thus made impossible."

Although the FSG officials insisted that the decision affected only their sport, in reality it sounded the death knell for the Olympic ambitions of other competitors.

"The current situation does not make it possible to organise the Games in a truly Olympic spirit and Switzerland has decided to abstain," an official SOC statement said.

"It makes me sad for all those athletes who have struggled in gymnasiums and stadiums to achieve the Olympic standard," SOC President Marcel Henninger lamented.

Journalist and SOC member Karl Urb had proposed an alternative.

"The Swiss team should travel to Melbourne and officially protest against the presence of Soviet athletes and refuse to take part in the disciplines where they would be represented," Urb suggested.

"This gesture would no doubt have more effect than mere abstention." 

Switzerland's withdrawal caused consternation in the Olympic Movement despite an offer to use the funds that were to have been used for the trip in a donation to the Red Cross organisation.

"It is a disgrace that Switzerland, a neutral nation and the home of the IOC should set such a shameful example of political interference with the Olympic ideal," fumed Mayer.

Meanwhile religious sports groups in the Netherlands called upon the Dutch National Olympic Committee to withdraw from the Games unless the Soviets were excluded.

"It would be contrary to Dutch honour and human dignity if the blood soiled Soviet flag were to be honoured by Dutch people during the Games."

The Dutch duly pulled out of the Games but asked that their Olympic funds be diverted to help the Hungarians.

"We hope those who have withdrawn from the Melbourne Games will reconsider," IOC President Avery Brundage said days before the Games in Melbourne began.

"In an imperfect world, if participation in sport is to be stopped every time politicians violate the laws of humanity, there will never be any international contests. Is it not better to try and expand the sportsmanship of the athletic field into other areas?," Brundage asked in a plea for sporting 'neutrality'.

The Swiss and the Dutch did not change their minds.

They joined Spain, Egypt, Iraq and the Lebanon who also withdrew for different political reasons.

Over 80 Hungarians eventually competed in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, but not the football team which had delighted fans in Helsinki and was dubbed the "Golden team".

Team captain Ferenc Puskas had now defected to Spain and the side was in ruins as a result of the revolution.

"A dark cloud hovered over the stadium. Athletes from Hungary were present despite the 'civil war' which was tearing their country apart. They left their country in tragic circumstances," IOC chancellor Mayer wrote.

The most successful individual Hungarian competitor in Melbourne was gymnast Ágnes Keleti.

She was Jewish and had fled from Nazi persecution during the second world war.

Despite the privations she had suffered, her career proved remarkable.

She won Olympic gold in the floor exercises at the 1952 Games in Helsinki and was world champion on the uneven bars in 1954.

By the time of the Melbourne Games, she was already 35 years of age but she produced the performances of her career.

Hungary finished second in the team competition behind the Soviet Union and in the individual all-around competition. 

Keleti was beaten only by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, considered one of the greatest of all time.

Hungarian gymnast Ágnes Keleti, now approaching her 102nd birthday, won four gold medals at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics ©Getty Images
Hungarian gymnast Ágnes Keleti, now approaching her 102nd birthday, won four gold medals at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics ©Getty Images

Keleti won gold in three individual apparatus events and in the portable team apparatus.

Such was her reputation that Prince Philip came to watch the routines.

After the Games, Keleti was among many in the team who opted to seek asylum rather than return to their homeland.

She eventually settled in Israel.

In the fencing competition at St Kilda, Hungary won team sabre gold and defeated the Soviet Union 9-7 in the final pool.

The 1952 gold medallist Pál Kovács found himself facing Russian fencer Lev Kuznetzov.

"Every point the Hungarian won was greeted with loud applause but the Russian's victories were booed," the Melbourne Argus newspaper reported.

The public address announcements had little effect.

"Show SOME sportsmanship and be more impartial in your applause," pleaded the announcer to be greeted only by laughter.

Games officials applauded the Soviet fencers in an attempt to drown out the booing.

"I’ll never forget what happened today, the whole thing made me feel sick," one official said.

It was even reported that IOC President Brundage was jostled.

For many, the water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union remains the most emblematic moment of the Games.

The Hungarians had won gold in 1952 and were unbeaten as they took on the Soviets in what was effectively a semi final.

It proved a bitter encounter that came to be known as "Blood in the Water".

The match dominated the world news as probably no water polo match had done before or since.

"Fists fly in Pool Fracas" was one newspaper headline.

"Vicious fighting in the water polo shattered the Games' peace," said a report on the match.

Hungary led 4-0 as the closing stages approached.

Their strategy had been to antagonise the opposition.

"We agitated them verbally," Zador admitted many years later.

It helped that many of the Hungarian team had learned Russian under the pro-Soviet regime.

"We didn’t expect it to get out of hand, but that suited us," Zador added.

Water Polo is by nature a very physical sport but in this politically charged atmosphere tempers boiled over.

"Hungarian sympathisers among the spectators joined in a wild demonstration when Ervin Zador, Hungary's outstanding forward, was struck in the eye and blood poured from his split eyebrow," the Melbourne Argus reported.

The crowd chanted "Ruszkik haza!" which when translated meant Russians go home!

Police and officials were called to the side of the pool side to restore order. 

The victory left one final match between the Hungarians and a highly symbolic gold medal.

They defeated Yugoslavia to claim gold for a third consecutive Games.

Zador was another who decided not to return home.

In 2022, a museum opened in Budapest to commemorate the uprising ©Getty Images
In 2022, a museum opened in Budapest to commemorate the uprising ©Getty Images

Team members tried to decide whether or not to go home and held urgent meetings in the Village, but information from Hungary was hard to come by.

Cryptic words in brief telegram messages from family members helped some decide that the best course of action was to seek asylum.

Sports Illustrated magazine’s publisher Henry Luce offered to arrange refugee status to any member of the team that wished it.

Zador took up the offer and eventually settled in the United States and briefly coached a teenage Mark Spitz.

The trials faced by the Hungarians have never been forgotten.

Spitz himself narrated a television documentary and in 2006, a Hungarian feature film called "Children of Glory" was released. 

It ends with the emotional scene as the Hungarian flag was raised in Melbourne after the Olympic water polo final in 1956.

Many have drawn parallels with more recent world events.