Canoeing in Hungary Part 4

Raising the Flag

Szétlőtt harckocsi a Móricz Zsigmond körtéren

1956 was the year of a famous water polo match. Players from Hungary and the Soviet Union fought in the pool resulting in blood in the water and a near riot from spectators.

The trigger had been some dramatic events in Budapest a month early. Soviet tanks had arrived in the city to crush a demonstration against communist rule, but the people of Hungary rebelled. They attacked the tanks (above) and then took control of the country.

The communists would soon regain power but the revolutionary government remained in place when many Hungarian athletes departed, by ship, for the Melbourne Olympics.

Like Hungary’s footballers, stranded after a European Cup tie in Spain, there would be far reaching consequences, not only for its water polo players, but also for its canoeists.


The biggest headache for Australian officials was keeping the flags up to date but they may not have appreciated the assistance of some local Hungarian immigrants, who tore down the flag in the Olympic Village and ripped the communist emblem from its centre.

They replaced it with a revolutionary flag, which had a black sash across it as a symbol of mourning. The flag is now in a museum in Hungary (above). According to the sign, it was taken home and hidden until the end of the Cold War by water polo player, Laszlo Jeney.

To defect or not to defect? That was the question for many of Hungary’s Olympians. The 1954 world championships had been a great breakthrough for its canoeists but it would have to find new talent as many of its medallists sought asylum elsewhere, among them Zoli Szigeti, who chose to remain in Australia, where he became a national team coach.

Melbourne silver medallist, Istvan Hernek, whose parents had been seized by the secret police, travelled to the United States as a refugee, with 33 team mates, aided by Sports Illustrated magazine. But Cecilia Hartmann was not told a thing about the opportunity. She returned to Hungary and it took six years for her to reach safety back in Melbourne.

Hartmann had trained on the Danube, as did two young canoeists, Ivan Gaal and Gyorgy Molnar, whose touching story is told in a short documentary film. After the revolution failed, Gaal defected to Australia, although he was not part of the Olympic team, while Molnar was drafted into the Hungarian army. They would not speak again for 55 years.

While the Danube brought the canoeists together, a brutal regime had split them apart.

Next week: One of those great sporting mysteries, what happened to American boxing?


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