Cold War Politics Mar the Melbourne Summer Olympics

The relationship of politics and sports was reflected during the staging of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Several international political controversies prior to the Games resulted in nations boycotting the Olympics and using the Games as a surrogate for war.

Summary of Event

Prior to the opening of the Melbourne Summer Olympic Games on November 22, 1956, two major international political conflicts occurred that would affected the conduct of the Games. In October, 1956, French, British, and Israeli military forces bombarded Egyptian targets and invaded the Suez Canal Suez Canal crisis (1956);and Melbourne Summer Olympics[Melbourne Summer Olympics] . Then, in November, Soviet military forces invaded Hungary Hungarian Revolution (1956)
Revolutions and coups;Hungary to quell a revolution opposing Soviet hegemony in the country. To express opposition to the Suez Canal crisis, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq withdrew from the Melbourne Games. The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain then withdrew from the Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Moreover, in addition to external Cold War politics affecting the 1956 Olympic Games, there was evidence that the games themselves were developing into an arena of Cold War politics. Cold War;1956 Olympics[nineteen fifty six Olympics]
Olympic Games;1956
Melbourne Summer Olympics (1956)
[kw]Cold War Politics Mar the Melbourne Summer Olympics (Nov. 22-Dec. 8, 1956)
[kw]Politics Mar the Melbourne Summer Olympics, Cold War (Nov. 22-Dec. 8, 1956)
[kw]Melbourne Summer Olympics, Cold War Politics Mar the (Nov. 22-Dec. 8, 1956)
[kw]Olympics, Cold War Politics Mar the Melbourne Summer (Nov. 22-Dec. 8, 1956)
Cold War;1956 Olympics[nineteen fifty six Olympics]
Olympic Games;1956
Melbourne Summer Olympics (1956)
[g]Australia;Nov. 22-Dec. 8, 1956: Cold War Politics Mar the Melbourne Summer Olympics[05320]
[c]Cold War;Nov. 22-Dec. 8, 1956: Cold War Politics Mar the Melbourne Summer Olympics[05320]
[c]Sports;Nov. 22-Dec. 8, 1956: Cold War Politics Mar the Melbourne Summer Olympics[05320]
Brundage, Avery
Zador, Ervin
Nagy, Imre
Nasser, Gamal Abdel
[p]Nasser, Gamal Abdel;Suez Canal
Stalin, Joseph
[p]Stalin, Joseph;Cold War

On July 26, 1956, Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal. This action by the Egyptian government posed a threat to French and British economic interests, as well as to Israel’s national security. Nasser’s Egypt was supported militarily by the Soviet Union. After Nasser had purchased tanks from communist Czechoslovakia, the United States had responded by withdrawing economic support from Egypt. On October 29, 1956, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula and made rapid progress toward the canal zone. On October 31, 1956, French and British military forces bombarded Egyptian targets and invaded the Suez Canal. As a result of the Suez Canal crisis, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq boycotted the Melbourne Olympic Games. The Suez Canal crisis was resolved in March, 1957, with a United Nations cease-fire.

On October 23, 1956, Imre Nagy was installed as prime minister of Hungary by the nation’s Communist Party. Nagy, however, called for the withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact, the Communist Bloc alliance designed by the Soviets to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A crowd of 100,000 convened in Budapest’s Bem Square to stage a demonstration calling for reform in Eastern Europe.

The rising escalation of the popular movement in Hungary and the prime minister’s desire to leave the alliance it controlled prompted the Soviet Union to invade Hungary on November 4, 1956. On November 10, a cease-fire was agreed to, and the revolution was quelled. The Soviet Union installed a new government and Nagy and many others were tried and executed. By the end of 1956, an estimated 200,000 refugees fled Hungary. To protest the Soviet intervention in Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland boycotted the Melbourne Games. Ironically, as the Hungarian revolution was unfolding, many Hungarian and Soviet athletes were together on a ship that set sail for Australia. It was not until they arrived in Australia that the Hungarian athletes heard about the details of the revolution in their country.

As a result of the revolution, a water polo Water polo competition, 1956 Olympic match at the Melbourne Olympics scheduled between the Hungarian and Soviet teams took on new significance. The match would serve as a surrogate war, a chance for the members of the Hungarian team to defeat the representatives of the nation that had invaded and subjugated their homeland. The Hungarian water polo team had won the gold medal in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, and the Hungarian team was considered the favorite to win the gold medal in the Melbourne Games.

The water polo match between the two teams took place on December 5, 1956. The natatorium had a capacity crowd of 5,500, many of whom were Hungarian expatriates. The contest was an exhibition of brutal competition, resulting in numerous penalties. One of the Hungarians, Ervin Zador, received a severe blow over his right eye that split his brow, spurting blood into the pool. The contest was shortened because of the hostilities that were displayed by the athletes in the pool, and by the pro-Hungarian spectators in the natatorium. The Hungarians won 4-0 and went on to win the gold medal. Following the Melbourne Games, 45 of the 175 Hungarian Olympic athletes and a Hungarian Olympic official sought political asylum.

In an attempt to downplay the political controversy surrounding the Games, Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, claimed that the Olympic Games were not intended to be contests between nations but to provide competition between individuals. To demonstrate the unity of athletes, the Melbourne Olympics initiated a new tradition for the closing ceremony. Instead of having nations march in during the closing ceremony, it was suggested that athletes march in without association to national identity.

Other events at the Games reflected the international Cold War climate. The Soviet Union won more medals than the United States, and the press utilized an artificial point system that began with the 1952 Olympic Games to compare athletic achievements between the Eastern bloc nations and the Western nations. The comparative analysis between Soviet athletes and Western athletes had actually begun in 1948, when the International Olympic Committee invited Soviet sport leaders to the 1948 London Olympics as observers. The Soviet observers felt that their athletes would be highly competitive against American athletes. In May, 1951, the Soviet Union Olympic Committee submitted a formal application requesting recognition by the International Olympic Committee. The International Olympic Committee granted approval, and the Soviet Union was permitted entry to the 1952 Games in Helsinki.

In 1952, the Cold War was ushered into the Olympic arena. The Soviet Union came in second to the United States in total medals. To assure a competitive edge for Soviet athletes, the Soviet Union instituted a form of state-supported amateurism for their athletes: Soviet athletes would serve in the military or government and be paid for their training. In addition, Soviet athletes would receive monetary rewards for winning a gold or a silver medal. Athletes who were unsuccessful would be reprimanded. When the favored Soviet soccer team failed to beat Yugoslavia in a preliminary contest and failed to win a medal in the Games, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin immediately called for the dismissal of the coaches and players on the team. The Soviet ideal of participation was clearly counter to the ideals of amateurism and sportsmanship that had been established in the Olympic movement since its inception in 1896.


The Melbourne Olympic Games of 1956 reflected the nationalism of Cold War politics. The acceptance of the Soviet Union into the Olympic fold in 1952 provided another arena for competition between East and West. The Soviet Union would win more medals than the United States in 1956, as well as in subsequent Olympiads in 1960, 1964, 1972, 1976, and 1988. Following the entry of the Soviet Union into the Olympic Games, a number of controversies emerged between the Cold War adversaries. Boycotts, protests, questions of professionalism, and utilization of performance-enhancing drugs by Eastern bloc nations were some of the conflicts that would affect the Olympic Games for more than thirty-five years after the Melbourne Games. Cold War;1956 Olympics[nineteen fifty six Olympics]
Olympic Games;1956
Melbourne Summer Olympics (1956)

Further Reading

  • Espy, Richard. The Politics of the Olympic Games. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Provides a historical account of the political, economic, social, and philosophical forces that have influenced the conduct of the Olympic Games.
  • Rinehart, Robert E. “Fists Flew and Blood Flowed: Symbolic Resistance and International Response in Hungarian Water Polo at the Melbourne Olympics, 1956.” Journal of Sport History 23 (Summer, 1996): 120-139. An in-depth analysis of the water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary in the Melbourne Olympics and the relationship to the larger political conflict of the Hungarian revolution.
  • Riordan, Jim. “The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Olympic Champions.” Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies 2 (1993): 25-44. Provides a historical analysis of Soviet participation in the Olympic Games.
  • Senin, Alfred E. Power, Politics, and the Olympic Games. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 1999. Historical overview of political, social, and economic forces that shaped the Olympic Games.

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