Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

The Melbourne organizers expected a record number of teams in Melbourne after several countries refused to attend the Helsinki Games in 1952.

Originally 80 countries accepted invitations to attend, but hopes of that number disappeared when war erupted between Egypt and Israel on 29 October, just over three weeks before the Games Opening Ceremony, after Egypt had seized control of the Suez Canal on 26 July.

The problem escalated when British and France, both concerned over the security of the Suez Canal joined the conflict and began aerial attacks on Egyptian targets on 31 October, followed by ground troops a few days later.

Egypt, protesting against what it termed the "cowardly aggression" of the European countries almost immediately withdrew, followed soon after by the small Iraqi and Lebanese contingents.

After elections in June, 1953 and a later revolt against the Communist regime,  Soviet tanks and troops launched an attack on Budapest on 4 November, resulting in an eventual death toll of 2,500 Hungarians and an estimated 200,000 refugees (of which Australia later accepted 10,000).

The Netherlands government, which had supplied humanitarian aid to victims of the Communist repression recalled its team, already in Melbourne. Spain immediately followed by withdrawing its contingent.

The Swiss Olympic Federation voted to send a team only if all seven participating Swiss sports unanimously agreed - the agreement was not forthcoming, and Switzerland also decided to withdraw, to the disgust of Chancellor of the I.O.F., Otto Mayer, a Swiss citizen who called the debate was "a shameful example of political interference with the Olympic ideal".   The Swiss Federation later changed its mind, but too late for the entire team to travel to Melbourne.

The five Scandinavian countries - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden already had more than 200 representatives in Melbourne, but as late as 13 November, just nine days before the opening, had not made a firm decision as to whether they would compete; a later meeting of the Scandinavian Federation however decided that their athletes would meet their obligations as planned.

Rather unfortunately, both the rival factions of mainland China and Formosa (now Taiwan) had been recognised by the I.O.C. in 1954, but political tensions between the two saw the mainland China withdraw.

Several smaller countries - Guatemala, Gold Coast, Malta and Panama also withdrew, although probably for financial reasons - the 67 countries attending bringing 2,813 male and 371 female competitors and their entourage of coaches and officials (the actual number undisclosed); to all intents and purposes well short of the 6,000 anticipated in early discussions on the need for an Olympic Village), but certainly many more than could have been housed at alternative sites at the Showgrounds, University or Albert Park Barracks.

(As well as the overseas visitors, 287 Australian athletes were housed at the Village).

The international tensions impacted the Games in other areas : the traditional Torch Relay from Athens, the home of the ancient Olympic Games, was delayed because of the Egyptian crisis, and the conflict in Hungary caused their team to arrive a week later than scheduled and with a controversy over the flag they would compete under.

The Games itself saw a "blood-bath" in the men's water polo semi-final between Russia and Hungary.

Local newspapers (perhaps somewhat biased against the perceived Russian "supermen") suggested that the Russians repeatedly called the Hungarians "fascists" - at one stage, five players were ordered from the water, and after a Russian player Valentin Prokopov.swam the length of the pool and punched a Hungarian, Ervin Zador, in the eye while the ball was at the other end, the Swedish referee abandoned the match with two minutes to play and declared Hungary the winners - they led 4-0, Zador having scored two of the goals.

The aggression was not one-sided, however - from the beginning, kicks and punches were exchanged, and at one point, a punch thrown by Hungarian captain Dezső Gyarmati was caught on film

Zador admitted many years later that on the morning of the match, the Hungarians had created a strategy to taunt the Russians, whose language they had studied in school … "We decided to try and make the Russians angry to distract them".

The incident was perhaps the first example of the all-pervading nature of television with the incident seen by thousands of viewers as well as those at the event and pool-side photographers. Newspaper reports suggested that Olympic officials had anticipated the likely violence and had a number of police hidden in the crowd who intervened when the incensed and fiercely pro-Hungarian crowd threatened a riot.

There was another angry demonstration the same evening by pro-Hungarian sympathisers at St. Kilda Town Hall where Russia and Hungary met in a fencing event – the following morning's newspapers reveals that 10 Hungarian athletes had "disappeared" from the Olympic Village, along with a Yugoslavian female shot-putter.

What was an extensive propaganda victory for Hungarian nationalists turned into a more tangible one the following evening when the water polo team defeated Yugoslavia 2-1 to take the gold medal, but Zador's injury forced him to miss the match. Despite the interrupted preparation and concerns for the safety of loved ones back home, the relatively small Hungarian team collected nine gold medals at the Games.

Ultimately of 111 athletes that competed, 48 (including Zador) decided not to return home, although it stated that only 15 would remain in Melbourne with the rest planning to seek asylum in America. Another 13 Eastern Bloc athletes defected, mostly from Romania, but also discus-thrower Nina Ponomareva, the Soviet Union’s first gold medal-winner at the Games.

Blood In The Water




Images that rocked the “Friendly Games”!

Hungarian water polo player Ervin Zador being led from the pool by a first-aid attendant, after being king-hit behind play by a Russian opponent.   

As well as television cameras  The Sun News Pictorial’s Neil Howard captured the images above and below - the paper’s management are thought to have considered the image too graphic to run as the page-one story, and instead devoted the entire front page of the next morning’s edition to the image below (also by Howard), along with an alternate shot of police battling the pool-side crowd after Zador had been led away to receive medical treatment.