London 2012 - Water Polo great remembers London '48

Mon, 12 Mar 16:15:00 2012

The first time Dezso Gyarmati got into the pool to play a game of Olympic water polo, London still bore the marks of devastation from the Second World War and the field was missing Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union. The year was 1948.

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Gyarmati, 20 years old at the time, felt at home in London, where he had played for the Kingsbury Club, but his Hungarian national team fell just short of a gold.

"We came in second," Gyarmati told Reuters in an interview ahead of this year's return of the Games to London.

"We were devastated...although not me so much. I was young, and I knew I would win an Olympic gold one day. Of course I didn't think I would win three."

Four, to be precise, plus that one silver and two bronzes. Gyarmati is the most decorated Olympic water polo personality of all time, with five appearances as a player, two more as head coach, and podium finishes each time.

Hungary ruled supreme in the world of water polo between 1930 and 1980, at times transcending sport and entering general history even as the outside world closed down on eastern Europe just after 1948.

"A few months after we came home from London, the Iron Curtain descended behind us with a mighty bang," Gyarmati said. "It was very hard to go anywhere after that."

Sport was one of the few ways to reach international fame, and Gyarmati took his career as far as he could. His first Olympic gold came at the next opportunity, in 1952 in Helsinki, where Hungarians won a total of 16 golds.

"Helsinki was the pinnacle of Hungarian sports," he said.

In a single day, his water polo team won gold, the players went together to witness the second victory of boxing great Laszlo Papp, then they collected Papp and went to see the Magic Magyars soccer team win the third gold of the day.

Gyarmati's wife, swimmer Eva Szekely, also triumphed in 1952, winning the gold in 200 metres breaststroke.

The water polo team were in training camp in preparation for the 1956 Olympics when the country erupted in revolution against Soviet rule. For a brief few weeks, the team's attention was split between practice and protest.

Gyarmati was team captain by then and the most political of the lot, training by day and taking part in the revolution by night. He went all the way to Prime Minister Imre Nagy to secure passports and exit permits for all his team mates.

"We had to fly from Prague as no airline would land in Budapest," he said. "We were in midair to Melbourne when the pilot told us the news Soviet tanks had invaded Budapest. We knew they would drown the revolution in blood."

Stunned, they scrambled for news of loved ones at home. After a week or so, Gyarmati and team director Bela Rajki called the players together and told them that winning was the only way forward.

The team did win. They beat Britain, then the United States, then Italy, then Germany.

Thirty-three days after the revolution was quenched at home came the semi-final that came to be known worldwide as 'Blood in the Water': Hungary v Soviet Union. Hungary won 4-0.

"At the Crystal Palace swimming complex, the 8,000 spectators were all seated on one side of the pool," Gyarmati said. "At least three-quarters of them were Hungarians."

"I told the team, guys, there is no way we leave this place losers. Fight to your last breath. I felt I only had to say what everyone knew, and it would have the desired effect."

Passion propelled the team past the Soviet Union and, at 4-0, one minute before the whistle, a frustrated Soviet player elbowed Hungary's Ervin Zador, bloodying his right eye. When Zador emerged from the water soaked in blood, chaos broke out in the stands.

"Technically, the game was never finished," Gyarmati said. "I had told Ervin to exit the pool in front of the audience; I guess it was a bit of a mischief, but the blow did happen, and everyone immediately thought about the revolution, and Ervin was in the headlines immediately.

"Without that blow, it would have been a strict but straight game that I had played a hundred times... (This way) it became the most interesting game ever played."

The final 2-1 victory over Yugoslavia is barely remembered.

Half the team, including Zador, never returned to Hungary. Gyarmati was in two minds, returning first, but leaving for the U.S. later. When promised amnesty by the Communist government, he returned to Hungary again, this time for good.

"Sport had spoiled me," he said. "In New York, I was one among millions, where water polo meant nothing. But the real reason is, I was patriotic. I liked living in Hungary."

His career would end 24 years and four Olympic medals later.

At home, Gyarmati was also surrounded by sporting greats. His wife was an Olympic champion. His daughter earned two swimming medals at the 1972 Games. His son-in-law won gold in kayaking in 1968. His grandson, Mate Hesz, narrowly missed a spot on the reigning Olympic champions water polo team.

"It was natural for me to see Olympic champions at the dining table," Hesz told Reuters. "But there were never any expectations. Of course, every child wants to surpass his parents, but my bar was set quite high."

Gyarmati and his teams had left a legacy that would be hard to surpass, said three-times Olympic champion Gergely Kiss.

"They invented a lot of things in water polo," Kiss told Reuters after a recent practice. "For faster play they invented (passing) the ball not to the water but hand to hand. They (also) invented zone defence."

Kiss, who will try to help Hungary become the first team to win four back-to-back golds in London, said Gyarmati's daily presence at the pool gave him both motivation and a role model.

"He doesn't only say he loves water polo but he really does it," Kiss said. "It's a good example to us to live like this to give back to this very nice game."

Gyarmati has been invited to attend the London Games in July and August but, at 84 and walking painfully with a cane, he said he was unlikely to go, and planned to watch on television from home.

"I would be so happy if we won for the fourth time," he said. "It will be difficult, but most of these players are absolute world-class athletes."

Reuters

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