The women’s gymnastics competition at the 1956 Olympic Games was held in The Stadium in West Melbourne. This venue was rebuilt the previous year after the original 1915 structure had been destroyed by fire. The Stadium was famous as a venue for boxing and wrestling, earning it the nickname ‘The House of Stoush’ – perhaps an appropriate moniker as it turned out.
The competition was dominated by Larisa Latynina representing the Soviet Union and Agnes Kelati representing Hungary. Of the seven events, each of these women won three gold medals outright and they shared the honours for the floor exercise. As they battled it out in Melbourne, their countries were locked in a fierce political battle.
In October 1956, Hungarian University students marched into the streets of the capital, Budapest, to protest against the pro-Soviet Communist government. Popular support for this action grew, leading to the installation of a new Prime Minister who declared the country would cut ties with the Soviet Union. By the end of the month, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and a wave of emigration from the country had begun. The Hungarian Olympics team had fled to Czechoslovakia as the unrest began, eventually arriving in Melbourne to be greeted by hundreds of supporters many of whom offered a haven and jobs to any who did not wish to return to Hungary.
The conflict far away played out at the Melbourne games in several ways. Firstly, to protest against the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland decided to boycott the games. This was not the only statement like this – four other countries also expressed political opinion by boycott.
At the Olympic Village in Heidelberg, the organisers raised the flag of each country that did participate as the team arrived – when the Hungarian flag was raised, many of the team objected, having decided to support the revolution while en route to Australia. Recently declassified ASIO documents tell the story of how the communist flag was replaced after some delicate negotiations. The two flags were kept safely by an Olympics official, and eventually made their way back to Hungary.
The most notorious incident was the ‘blood in the water’ semi-final match of the men’s water polo competition between the teams from the Soviet Union and Hungary. The tension began long before the game, which was violent from the start. By the final minutes of the match, Hungary was leading 4–0. Zádor of Hungary was struck by Russian player, Prokopov. Bleeding profusely from a gash above his eye, Zádor left the pool. Many angry spectators jumped onto the concourse, shouting abuse at the Russians. To avoid a riot, police entered the arena and stopped the match with one minute remaining. Hungary was declared winner and went on to win the gold medal.
At the end of the games, almost half of the 111 members of the Hungarian team decided to defect, including gymnast Agnes Kelati. Though many stayed in Australia, others made their way to other countries, particularly the USA.
The Australian Red Cross assisted many of the defectors to connect with their families in Hungary and other places. One such request concerned Agnes Kelati who had fled to Germany. Kelati settled in Israel in 1957.
- Blood in the water: The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. SBS radio 25 July 2012 transcript, http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2012/07/25/blood-water-1956-olympics-melbourne accessed 7 January 2021
- ‘Welfare Enquiries, Hungarian Olympic team’ file 2015.0033.00590, Red Cross Society, National Office correspondence, University of Melbourne Archives
- Festival Hall (Melbourne), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Festival_Hall_(Melbourne) accessed on 7 January 2021