Hungary’s 1950s water polo team

Hungarian Gyorgy Karpati, who won gold at Melbourne 1956, is one of eight male athletes to have won four or more Olympic medals in water polo
Hungarian Gyorgy Karpati, who won gold at Melbourne 1956, is one of eight male athletes to have won four or more Olympic medals in water polo

Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and the star players that helped them light up the Olympic Games. In the latest part of our series, we look back at Hungary’s men's water polo team who dominated the pool in the 1950s.

How it started

Hungary has been a powerhouse of water polo since the introduction of the sport at the Olympic Games. The statistics speaks for themselves: they've participated in 22 of 27 Olympic tournaments, winning nine gold, three silver and three bronze. They were also on the Olympic podium without fail between 1928 and 1980. And maybe even more remarkable, they won three golds in a row between 2000 and 2008.

So it was not a surprise to see the Magyars, as Hungarian team were known, performing well during post-World War II Olympic Games. At London 1948, the team earned a silver medal and in Helsinki 1952, they won gold. But it was four years later that the most famous water polo match of Olympic history took place between Hungary and the USSR in Melbourne, creating a legend.

Hungary's water polo team at the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games
Hungary's water polo team at the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games
© 1952 / Comité International Olympique (CIO)

The biggest win

For once, the biggest win was not a final.

At Melbourne 1956, the semi-final between the Soviets and Hungarians has become the famous “blood in the water” game. A few days before the start of the Olympic Games, a revolution began in Budapest, which was repressed by the USSR. In such circumstances, the semi-final was obviously extremely tense between the two countries.

However, the Hungarians dominated the game, leading 4-0. But a few minutes before the end of the game, Valentin Prokopov of the Soviet Union punched Hungarian player Ervin Zador in the face, and there was “blood in the water” - quite literally.

The match was stopped and Hungary declared the winner.

In the final, which Zador could not play because of his injury, Hungary beat Yugoslavia 2–1 to win their fourth Olympic gold medal.

The Rough Justice of Olympic Water Polo

The key players

Beside Zador, who scored five goals in four games in Melbourne in 1956 including two in the famous “blood in the water” game against USSR, two legendary players who were also part of the squad is Dezső Gyarmati, who earned five Olympic medals in total (3 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze) and Gyorgy Karpati, who won four medals (3 gold and 1 bronze).

Gyarmati is often considered as the best water polo players in history. He was called the “world’s fastest water polo player” (he could swim a 100m in 58.5 seconds), ambidextrous, could play either back or forward, was a great scorer but also a playmaker.

Karpati, who unfortunately passed away in July this year, was a different kind of player, as he described himself once in an interview: “I wasn’t the most gifted player, I didn’t have the greatest skills and I didn’t have the usual big size. But I wanted it more, much more than anybody else. Perhaps this was the key for my success."

What happened next?

The reality is that many of the Hungarian water polo teams throughout history could be considered “incredible”.

The Magyars practically never stopped being successful at the Olympics, but some teams were particularly impressive.

Led by Tamás Faragó, Hungary earned Olympic medals in 1972, 1976 and 1980. Twenty years later, they won three consecutive gold medals (between 2000 and 2008), becoming only the second team to have an Olympic winning streak in water polo (Great Britain being the other).

And with players like Tibor Benedek, Tamas Kásás, Tamás Molnár or Gergely Kiss, this team won everything possible in the 1998-2008 decade.

While Hungary have not made it onto the Olympic podium since Beijing 2008, their recent gold medal success at the 2020 European Championships, which saw them qualify for Tokyo 2020, might just be the start of something new.