‘Blood in the water’ – a dramatic moment in Australia’s migration history

The recent Olympics in Tokyo brought back memories of one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of Australia’s migration program.

It was 1956, and as the Hungarian Olympic team was heading to Melbourne for the games, the Soviet Union invaded their homeland.

The team, which included Hungary’s world champion water polo players, heard the news as they touched down in Darwin on the last leg of their journey.

At that point, many of the team made the difficult and secret decision that comes to the end of the games, they would not return home.

The water polo team was involved in the infamous ‘blood in the water’ Olympic semi-final against their Soviet oppressors.

The match was one of the hardest-fought contests in Olympic history and came to symbolise the Hungarian struggle against Soviet rule.

Ervin Zador, 21 years old in 1956, was the star player in Hungary's team and recalled being punched by a Russian rival.

"A whistle came, I looked at the referee, I said 'What's the whistle for?' And the moment I did that, I knew I'd made a horrible mistake," he said.

"I turned back and with a straight arm, he just smacked me in the face. He tried to punch me out," Zador said.

The Hungarians won the semi-final and went on to win back-to-back gold medals.

The team was supported by a strong local Hungarian community in Melbourne; a community that was angered by the Soviet invasion and who later provided money, jobs and a place to stay for athletes who chose to defect. Forty-eight accepted their support and didn't return.

Bizarrely, secret channels were opened up to get information in and out of the Olympic village. Star Australian sprinter Shirley Strickland couriered secret letters from Hungarian expats to athletes in the village

Some of the 48 athletes who defected eventually made their way to the USA but others remained in Melbourne. Many of those learned English with AMES.

Most of the football team that was withdrawn from competition just before the Games defected to Australia and settled in Melbourne.

Just a year later, they were involved in the establishment of the Melbourne Hungaria Football Club. The club played in the Victorian Soccer League for 30 years.

The Soviet invasion of Hungary came after a protest that began as a student protest brought thousands of people onto the streets of Budapest calling for political reform.

A student delegation, entered the national radio station building to try to broadcast their demands. They were arrested and when the delegation's release was demanded by protesters outside, they were shot at and several students killed.

As a result, the revolt spread quickly and the government collapsed.

Thousands of people organised themselves into militias fighting Soviet troops. A new government was formed by leader Imre Nagy and negotiations began. But on November 4, a large Soviet force invaded and occupied Budapest and other regions of the country.

More than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Thousands ultimately came to Australia.

Prominent Australian-Hungarians include soccer player and commentator Les Murray, boxer Joe Bugner, chef Ed Halmagyi, actress Annie Jones, businessman Frank Lowy and lawyer Rob Stary.


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