Melbourne 1956, "Freedom's Fury" and the Blood in the Water Saga

When Hungary remembers the 60th anniversary of the 1956 uprising this fall, you will probably see this photograph over and over again - even in international media. The picture of the bloody face of Hungarian water polo player Ervin Zador has become an icon of the revolution. And it is one of the centerpieces of - as far as I am concernd - the best sports documentary ever filmed: "Freedom's Fury" (picture: cinemaromantica.org).

The film tells the story of the water polo showdown between Hungary and the USSR at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics against the backdrop of the revolution that had been stopped by communist bloc tanks only a few weeks earlier. Hungary had been the emotional top story of these Games from the beginning, but in this water polo semifinal match on December 6th, 1956, the heat boiled over. Even Swedish referee Goesta Zuckermann, who was considered to be the best in the world, could not stop the match from turning into an ugly battle. When Russian player Valentin Prokopov knocked out Zador with Hungary leading 4-0 in the very last minutes of the game, Zuckermann broke off the battle. Hungary was declared the winner and went on to win the gold, while the Soviets had to be escorted by police from the pool to prevent a riot.

Here is the trailer of "Freedom's Fury" from 2006, together with some archive footage of the match:

"Freedom's Fury" co-producer Quentin Tarantino once called the film "the best untold story ever". Writer and director Colin Gray described his intentions as follows: "Both teams were as much a victim of the circumstances and really both countries were imprisoned by the same ideology - and these guys were able to finally reconnect as human beings and as fellow athletes. That was something that we really wanted to highlight, the sort of humanistic side to counter the sort of oppression of ideology that everyone had suffered under in the Eastern bloc."

While every observe including the media only saw the political side of the "Blood in the water match", the most astonishing part of "Freedom's Fury" is the way many players from both teams remembered the encounter half a century later. To most of them, it was somewhat just another water polo match - hard, brutal, reckless, physical, but in a way normal competitiveness or just the heat of the moment. Especially the Hungarians, many of whom defected directly from Melbourne, seemed to have mainly winning on their minds, but not revenge for the counter-revolution back home. Zador later recalled it was their game plan to provoke the Russians until they would lose their temper and hence play badly.

To wrap things up: Although "Freedom's Fury" (by the way narrated by Mark Spitz) is a political film, it somehow reminds the audience that sometimes we should not put into sports more political meaning than there really is in it.


Gunder Haegg - The Unfulfilled Dream, Part 2

Some of the greatest athletes of the world have tried in vain to win an Olympic gold medal. We portray them in this series.

Gunder Haegg was a victim of his time and circumstances. When the Swedish long distance runner was at the height of his career, World War II prevented him from becoming an Olympic champion in 1940 and 1944. In 1948, he was denied the chance to compete in the 1948 London Games because he had been stripped of his amateur status two years before. Allegedly, Haegg had been running once for 400 Swedish crowns (picture: aftonbladet.se).

Haegg could have been a second Paavo Nurmi. The Swede, born in Albacken on the last day of 1918, and the "Flying Finn" were the only two men to hold every single world record from 1500 to 5000 meters at the same time. Haegg also was the first men to run the 5000 meters in less than 14 minutes. His personal best, marked on September 10th, 1942, stood for twelve years. The summer of 1942 was the crown jewel of Haegg's feats, when he clocked ten world records within 82 days. Overall, he smashed 16 world records - but never ran in a single Olympic race.

Directed by his coach Goesta Olander in the training camp of Valdalen, deep in the woods of northern Sweden, Haegg started to use a form of interval training as one of the first long distance runners. He paved the way for the methods later taken to perfection by the likes of Vladimir Kuts and Emil Zatopek, who finally broke his 5000 meters records.

Because of the war, only few footage of Haegg's races has survived. Here are some impressions from his tour through the United States in 1943:

After his athletics career, Haegg lived as unconventional and extraordinary as his running had been. He sold books about his races, was a fire fighter, forest worker, salesman. And he always remained an icon for his country. Sports historian Julin called Haegg "a national symbol for a small country standing at the abyss of war".

Haegg passed away on November 27th, 2004, near Malmoe. But there is one thing he accomplished that even Nurmi did not get: A Swedish band named herself after Gunder Haegg (until they had to switch their name following legal persecution) and dedicated a song to him in 1970. A song about nature, wolves, idealism and "lousy capitalism". Haegg will sure ly have liked this one (picture: racingpast.ca).


Ghada Shouaa - The One and Only, Pt. 2

Some countries have won just one single gold medal in their Olympic history. We portray them in our series "The One and Only". One of them: Syria. 

The peaceful village of Simmern in the rural area of the German Rhineland is far away from war torn Aleppo or Damascus. It's the place where Syrias's only Olympic champion ever lives today. But Ghada Shouaa did not come as a refugee - as so many others of her compatriots did in the last two years.

When Shouaa won the heptathlon at the 1996 Atlanta Games, it came hardly as a surprise. The 23 year old former basketball international had won the World Championships in Gothenberg a year before and the famous meeting in Götzis, Austria prior to Atlanta. When U. S. heptathlon icon and gold medal favourite Jackie Joyner-Kersee had to quit after the opening 100 meters hurdles due to a hamstring injury, and Germany's former world champion Sabine Braun proved to be out of shape, the way for Shouaa was virtually free. She triumphed by a comfortable margin of over 200 points (picure: Alchetron).

Unfortunately, injuries were going to haunt her during the rest of her short career. In the autumn of the same year, she injured her back heavily while practicing the javelin. Shouaa had surgery in Koblenz, Germany and she joined the club USC Mainz to get back into shape. She won a bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, but never regained the shape of the glory days of Atlanta.

While living in Mainz, Shouaa's coach was Thomas Kohlbacher. His girlfriend Birgit Dressel, also an Olympic heptathlete back in 1984, had died on April 10th,  1987, from wrong medication or - as some insiders argue until today - from a horrific mixture of different doping substances found in her body. Kohlbacher has stayed silent about the details until today. While she later stayed in Germany, Shouaa's career had been jump-started in the early 1990s by a Russian coach: Kim Bukhantsov, who had coached discus thrower Faina Melnik to Olympic gold at the 1972 Munich Games.

It is not known which side Shouaa took during the civil war in her home country. Some Arab media say she openly sumpathized with Assad's regime, but the sources for this claim are dubious. Other writers dwelled on how badly she had been treated by Syrian sports authorities. What we know is that Assad's father and then Syrian head of state Hafiz called her via phone to congratulate Ghada Shouaa on her Atlanta gold. She is not only Syria's only Olympic champion until today, but also one of the very few Arab women to succeed in top level sports. (picture: Getty Images).


Ron Clarke - The Unfulfilled Dream, Part 1

Some of the greatest athletes of the world have tried in vain to win an Olympic gold medal. We portray them in this series.

His first Olympic appearance at the age of 19 was also going to be the most memorable. On November 22nd, 1956, the young Australian middle distance runner Ron Clarke had the honour to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Melbourne Games. In order to make the flame more visible to TV viewers, the organizers had added an extra portion of magnesia to the torch. "It was pure fireworks I was carrying with me", Clarke later remembered. When he lit the flame over Melbourne Cricket Ground, the blaze burnt his face and T shirt (picture: Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

On the track, Clarke was on fire rather late, with the first of his 17 world records coming in 1963 when he was already 26 years old. Before the 1956, he had broken the world junior record for the mile and finished second at the Australian trials. But officials considered Clarke to be to young and instead picked John Landy to run at the Games. Landy finished third in the 1500 meters at the Olympics behind surprise winner Ron Delany from Ireland. Clarke had to sit and wait.

By the time of the 1964 Games, Clarke was considered the favourite to win the 10,000 meters and also entered for the 5000 meters and the Marathon. But it was not going to be. On the home stretch of the 10,000 meters, Clarke was first passed by Tunisia's Mohammed Gammoudi. Then American Billy Mills sprinted past both to capture a sensational gold medal while Clarke had to settle for third. After this shocking defeat, he also played no major role in his other events, finishing ninth in both the 5000 meters and the Marathon.

His defeat in the 10,000 meters was typical for his major problem in championship races: Clarke lacked tactical flexibility, he always was the front runner which often resulted in poor finishing sprints. The fans loved him for his courage, but other runners capitalized on Clarke's main weakness and won the titles that eluded the great Aussie forever.

Nobody expected that his best chance for gold had already gone in Tokyo. Four years later, in the thin air and altitude of Mexico City, the African athletes took over long distance running with Clarke having no chance to fulfill his Olympic dream. He finished fifth in the 5000 meters and sixth in the 10,000 meters. At the finish of the 10,000 meters, Clarke collpased due to lack of oygen. "I was frankly worried that he might die", team physician Brian Corrigan said afterwards. When Clarke had to undergo heart surgery in the 1980s, he blamed the long-term effects of the races in Mexico (picture: The Australian).

Clarke retired from athletics in 1970, went on to work for Canon Corporation and as a TV expert and was elected mayor of his home town of Gold Coast in Queensland. Clarke died on June 17th, 2015.


Josy Barthel - The One and Only, Part 1

Some countries have won just one single gold medal in their Olympic history. We portray them in our series "The One and Only". One of them: Luxemburg. 

Josy Barthel was shaken by tears of joy and his picture moved the world. On July 26th, 1952, the 25 year old student stormed past Robert McMillan (USA) and world record holder Werner Lueg from Germany to win Olympic gold in the 1500 meter race at the Helsinki Games. It remains Luxemburg's only Olympic victory until today (pictures: Luxemburger Wort, family archive).

Barthel was an outsider, but far from being a nobody. He had started running at the age of 15, won student's and military world titles, and had finished ninth at the 1948 London Games. In Helsinki, he won both his heat and his semifinal run. The field he beat in the final included fourth placed Britain Roger Bannister, who became the first man to run the mile in less than four minutes two years later.

Barthel's triumph made him no friends in Germany, the country which had occupied his homeland in 1940, which forced Barthel to run his first races for the German Gau Moselland. In the Winter of 1951/52, Barthel started training by instructions of legendary German coach Woldemar Gerschler, who had made Rudolf Harbig a world record runner in the 1930s. When Barthel denied Lueg the gold medal, German media called Gerschler "a traitor of the fatherland". In Helsini, Germany did not win a single gold medal.

Barthel, whose sports teacher Lucien Bentz had been executed by the Nazis in 1944 in the concentration camp at Hinzach, kept on running until 1956. He retired after bowing out in the heats at the Melbourne Olympics. In the 1970s, he became president of his country's National Olympic Comitee and minister for transportation, energy, tourism and environment.

Josy Barthel died in 1992. The national stadium of Luxemburg was renamed after her only Olympic champion (picture: mzhopping.de).


Denver 1976 - The First NOlympic City

In the wake of Rome's decision not to run for the 2024 Summer Games, it is interesting to remember that the first NOlympic city made headlines 40 years ago. When the 1976 Winter Games were opened in Innsbruck, Austria, on February 4th, the town had one of the shortest time spans to prepare in the history of the Olympics - only four years. Originally, the IOC had had completely other plans. At the closing ceremony of the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics, it had invited the youth of the world to reassemble four years from there in Denver, Co. (picture: Business Insider Australia).

The Mile High City hat edged out Vanocuver, BC, Sion, Switzerland, and Tampere, Finland, in the race for the 1976 Games in May 1970. The arguments for hosting the Olympics were quite similar to the ones used today: profit, prestige, development. This promotional video by the Denver Chamber of Commerce makes the intentions of the candidature clear:

But by the time of the Sapporo Games, clouds of doubt had already begun to overshadow Denver's effort. Many people questioned the ecological sustainability of a Winter Games whiches venues would be spread all over the state. Still, the main point of discussion was money. In the 1970s, most of the revenue of the Games came from selling TV rights with corporate sponsorship still non-existent. The rest had to come from public sources - and that is where the protest started.

While Sapporo had cost roughly $70 million, Denver officials claimed they would need only $30 million. Doubts about this rather low price tag spread immediately. Reports were leaked that the 1960 Squaw Valley Games had cost Californias's taxpayers $13.5 million, instead of the estimated $1 million. Rumors about exploding costs in Montreal, host oft the 1976 Summer Games, further fuelled the nervousness in Colorado.

When two State Representatives, Bob Jackson and future governor Dick Lamm, started to publicly criticize ecological and economical aspects, the protest against the Games errupted full scale. Looking back in 2009, Lamm told the Colorado Daily: "The organizing committee here was in way over their heads. They overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs. Colorado was generally persuaded that they didn't have an adequate grasp on the figures and Colorado was very much liable to have to fund dramatic cost overruns." (picture: Westword)

After lots of discussions and two years of extensive PR campaigning on both sides, it came down to the voters. On November 7th, 1972, the people of Colorado had to descide wether to support a public bond issue for the Games worth $5 million. This sums seems absurdly low from today's perspective. It was not in 1972: By a vast margin of 60 to 40 percent, Colorado said NOlympics.

It took the organizers only one week to hand the 1976 Winter Olympics back to the IOC. (picture: Vintage Ski World)


The Best of Summer - Gold Medal: Rome 1960

David Maraniss called them "The Games That Changed The World", German sports writer Karl Adolf Scherer labeled 1960 "the last nice Olympic summer". To a certain degree, both are right. Rome was the great divide of the Olympic century. It had all the elements of a modern sports carnival while still lacking many problems later editions faced. But they were also the last Games of the first era of 20th century sports. That is why I call them the best ever - or at least the most historic.

In the beginning was architecture. The Eternal City offered a brilliant mix. On the one hand, organizers incorporated ancient monuments like the Basilica di Massenzio (wrestling), the Terme die Caracalla (gymnastics), and the Via Appia Antica (marathon/pictures: Getty, romemuseums.eu).

On the other side, the venues included groundbreaking architecture like the Palazzetto dello Sport (weightlifting and basketball) and the Palazzo dello Sport both constructed by Pier Luigi Nervi (boxing/pictures: Getty/roma1960.it).

The idea to stage competitions against the backdrop of traditional or landmark sites has often been copied later, mainly due to television. In that matter, the 1960 Games were ahead of their times. They were the first to be televised world wide on a grand scale, with the rights selling for $1.2 million. More than 70 hours of footage has survived in archives. When Abebe Bikila won the legendary marathon race barefoot, the cameras were placed exactly at the historic sites the runners passed by, starting at the Colosseum and culminating in the dramatic finish beneath the Arch of Constantine:

While Bikila's triumph marked the beginning of the era of Africa''s long distance running domination, Rome saw the birth of many superstars who were the first to become so thanks to exploding media attention. German Armin Hary crushed U.S. domination of sprinting, winning two gold medals. Three wins recorded Wilma Rudolph in the women's sprint, becoming one of the the first black female sports icons. The decathlon battle between eventual winner Rafer Johnson and Taiwan's Yang Chuan-Kwang fascinated the masses. While Germany ruled the waves in rowing, with her coaxed eight ending U.S. supremacy, Italy kept home all but one cycling gold.

Cycling was also the sport that offered a first glance at the sinister era of drug abuse that was just to begin. Denmark's Knut Enemark-Jensen fell of his bike during the time trial on the road and died hours later. The rumor's about his death being caused by amphetamine's were never fully proven, but the incident put doping on the IOC's agenda - where it has stayed until today.

Not to be misunderstood, politics were also all over Rome 1960, as it was normal during the Cold War. Russians and Americans battled it out on the playing field, Germany's unified team was a difficult matter as always, South Africa made its last appearance for decades, and Taiwan marched with an "Under protest" sign at the opeing ceremony, because it was forced to participate under the name of "Taiwan" instead of "China" due to political pressure from the communist bloc (picture: Getty).

The most enduring images of the epic 1960 Olympics were those of a young boxer from Louisville, KT: Cassius Marcellus Clay won his gold medal easily, kicking off a professional career that made him "The Greatest". Here are scenes from his gold medal bout:

"The Greatest" took home his Olympic gold from the Eternal City - and from the best Games ever.


The Best of Summer - Silver Medal: Munich 1972

My runner-up pick may seem controversial, but only at the first look. Of course, many people remember Munich 1972 first and foremost for the terrorist attack on Israel's athletes on September, 5th. But with all due respect to the victims of this barbaric act of violence, it is also true that these Games had lots of brilliant moments and helped to shape a positive picture of modern, post-war Germany all over the world. Had they not been overshadowed by terrorism, the 1972 Olympics would surely have gone down in history as a "Summer fairy tale" like the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

This process had started in the six years prior to the Games. In her attempt to exorcise the demons of Berlin's 1936 Nazi Games, Germany prepared for easy-going, delightful Games, which started with architecture. Munich's Olympic Park with its signature tent roof and the transparent, bright aura changed the face of the city and set the tone for the Games.

Kay Schiller and Christopher Young have portrayed this concept - largely directed by head of the organizing comitee, Willi Daume - in their great study. The world got a first impression at the opening ceremony, which was the first to feature show elements and music by Kurt Edelhagen that fitted the national teams parading into the stadium.

Fresh air was everywhere: in the architecture, the designs by Otl Aicher, the weather, the media. And the spirit spilled over to the audience. Many visitors from abroad were surprised to witness the fairness and competence of German crowds that they had not expected.

This is even more astonishing considering the fact that the Games took place at the height of the Cold War. The German Democratic Republic made its first fully accepted appearance at an Olympics, including her own flag and hymn. That happened in a country that had not started recognizing Eastern Germany until West German chancellor Willy Brandt had launched his new "Ostpolitik" a few years early.

Daume envisioned "competitive sports with a human face", a hidden acknowledgement that the doping problem was at least in sports circles already vibrant. We know today how the G.D.R. pushed her athletes to the limit and beyond, but since a widespread public discussion in 2012, it is clear that doping had become a problem in the west as well.

Besides pharmacy, the East-West-duells fascinated the audience, for example when West Germany defeated the Eastern girls in the women's 4 x 100 meter relay (picture: dpa). On a world wide scale, the triumph of the U.S.S.R. over the U.S. in the last seconds of the basketball final caused even more hype and controversy.

In contrast to this, there was no doubt about who the biggest star of Munich had been: U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, all with world records (picture: Time Magazine). His record stood for 36 years, before Michael Phelps won eight titles in Beijing.

Because of his Jewish ancestry, Spitz left Munich immediately after the terrorist attack. The days that shocked the world also haunted the greatest athlete of his time.