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.

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