Melbourne 1956 Olympics: politics does not spare athletes

The year 1956, one of the most turbulent of the post-war period, was not lacking in twists and turns: the XXth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Budapest insurrection, the Poznan revolt, the Suez affair, the wave of decolonization and the Algerian war. The Melbourne Olympic Games will be a faithful reflection of this world in which new power relations are emerging.

Aerial view of the Olympic Village in Melbourne, Australia, 1956. © AP Photo

Text by: Farid Fatemi


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The first Olympic Games (Olympics) in the southern hemisphere, exceptionally postponed to November, the Melbourne Olympics are also the historic moment when the "third world" emerges on the international scene. With decolonization, which reached its peak in 1960, the number of National Olympic Committees increased rapidly (as it did after the break-up of the USSR).

Thus, in the midst of the Cold War, Melbourne became an image of the "new world order", an ideal stage for the confrontation of the two superpowers with, alongside them, the Third World countries which, by playing "neutralism", wanted to demonstrate their independence vis-à-vis the two blocs.

For the Soviet Union, which is participating for the second time in the Olympics, Melbourne is the perfect opportunity to show off the omnipotence of the socialist bloc.

What's new

Even if the case of Melbourne is often cited as the first Olympic Games marked by the seal of boycott, non-participation – in order to send a political message – is as old as the Coubertinian Olympism: already in 1896, Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) boycotted the Athens Games because of hostilities towards Greece.

However, in 1956, political boycotts took on a dimension never seen before. Tellingly, it was the developing countries that took the initiative for the first boycotts.

Another major feature of this period: it was from that year that the television broadcasting of the Games was set up. The Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo (Italy, January 1956) are generally regarded as the beginning of the television era at the Olympics.

But in October 1956, more than Melbourne, two flashpoints of the globe attracted the particular attention of the international community: Egypt, with the aftermath of the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and Hungary, with the students' revolt against the Soviet Union's stranglehold on that country.

The Suez affair

The France, the main shareholder after England in the Suez Canal, not supporting the audacity of the Egyptian president to have nationalized the canal in July of that year, will undertake, alongside the British and the Israelis, a very risky adventure. Paris, convinced that President Nasser was adding fuel to the Algerian fire, wanted to get rid of the raïs.

Paris, which had captured a boat full of weapons, the Athos, very close to the Algerian coast, was sure that the cargo came from Alexandria and was destined for the National Liberation Front (FLN). The French government now believed it had "irrefutable proof of Egyptian intervention in Algeria," which would convince the world of Egypt's culpability, both in the canal affair and in the Algerian war.

The British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, L, and Guy Mollet, President of the French Council of Ministers (D), discuss the Suez affair in Paris on 26 September 1956. © AP Photo

The historian Georgette Elgey sums up the majority of French public opinion during these feverish weeks as follows: "We dream of fighting with Nasser to end the Algerian war" and, at the same time, saving "the work of Lesseps.


Already in August, Christian Pineau, the French Foreign Minister, issued a thinly veiled warning: "One of two things, either Colonel Nasser will bow and go back in full on the measures he has taken, thus acknowledging his mistake, or he will not bow. In this case, all measures should, in our opinion, be taken to compel him to submit. »

The inhabitants of Budapest demonstrate against the intervention of Soviet troops on November 2, 1956. © Intercontinental / AFP

These "measures" will be taken during the secret Sèvres agreements between France, Britain and Israel. According to this protocol, and contrary to American recommendations, the Israeli army would invade the canal, the French and British forces would then intervene, officially to calm the situation, in truth to take possession of the Suez Canal and, ideally, to finish off the Egyptian raïs...

The Hungarian Uprising

In February 1956, once the XXth Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR had formalized the wave of de-Stalinization, a wind of freedom began to blow over the Eastern bloc. In June, Poles marked their first revolt against the communist regime with the violent uprising in Poznan.

In October, the Hungarians demanded the return to power of Imre Nagy, a moderate communist and reformist, who had been expelled from power the previous year.

But Nagy returning, supported by the students and workers – perhaps a little euphoric – went too far in Moscow's view and announced Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact: an unforgivable mistake for Khrushchev and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who decided on the immediate punishment.

The conflagration

The two crises, Middle Eastern and Central European, reached their climax at almost the same time: on October 29, in accordance with the so-called "Musketeer" plan, Israel invaded Sinai and reached the Suez Canal. Two days later, the Franco-British forces bombed the Egyptian air force on the ground in order to allow the advance of the Israelis.

Anglo-French troops land at Port Fouad, near Port Said in Egypt, on November 5, 1956. © Guy Touchard / AFP

The next day, the insurrection of the people of Budapest led to the occupation of the headquarters of the Communist Party: the Hungarians began to believe in the triumph of their revolution. But on November 4, at three o'clock in the morning, Soviet tanks entered Budapest. The repression will be brutal.

Within four days, the UN Security Council, caught off guard, adopted two consecutive resolutions: Resolution 119, which convened an emergency special session of the General Assembly to respond to the "grave situation created by the action taken against Egypt." And Resolution 120, a similar decision to examine "the grave situation created by the employment of Soviet armed forces to suppress the efforts of the Hungarian people to reassert their rights."

If the international community will do nothing against the lead screed that falls on Hungary, the ill-considered adventure of the three musketeers of Suez will be strongly reprimanded by the two superpowers who do not want to have to manage an explosive situation in the Middle East.

The USSR openly threatens France, Britain and Israel with a nuclear response. In response, NATO brandishes the nuclear threat against the USSR if the latter uses atomic weapons.

That's when the US intervenes: it demands the withdrawal of Israeli, French and British forces to end the crisis.

Finally, on November 6, under pressure from Moscow and Washington, the armed intervention in Egypt stopped without the slightest result, except to become a global scandal and the occasion of mockery and fierce sarcasm against Paris and London.

The separation of the United States from Great Britain in the Suez Crisis is considered today as the greatest disagreement of the twentieth century between the two great allies.

The Olympics and boycotts

On 22 November, while the world was still wondering about the consequences of the two major geopolitical crises, Ron Clarke, a young Australian athlete, lit the flame for the Summer Olympics at Melbourne's Cricket Ground.

The Soviet flag was carried in the stadium during the closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, on December 8, 1956. © AP

Almost three weeks between the political crises and the start of the Games were enough for several states to take radical decisions.

Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycott the Olympics in protest against the "Anglo-French occupation of the Suez Canal". At the same time, they are protesting Israel's presence in Melbourne.

For their part, Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland are using the same weapon to express their disagreement with the Soviet intervention in Hungary.

Political clashes between athletes

Almost a month after the failed Budapest Uprising, water polo teams from Hungary and the USSR met in Melbourne. During this semi-final match, Soviet player Valentin Prokopov headbutted Hungary's Ervin Zador, who had already scored two goals. Both teams came to blows and several players were injured. Witnesses said the pool water turned red.

Ervin Zador, Hungarian water polo player, injured during the match against the Soviets, in Melbourne, December 6, 1956. © AP Photo

The Australian police must intervene to protect the Soviet team from the wrath of the spectators. In the end, Hungary won the gold medal in water polo and the Soviets the bronze medal.

The end of the Games

At the Olympic Village in Melbourne, some members of the Hungarian delegation attacked the official flag of Hungary and cut out the communist symbols. They will then replace this flag with the one bearing the "coat of arms of Kossuth", symbol of the Hungarian revolution of 1848.

When it came time to pack, several Hungarian athletes were missing: they had applied for political asylum in Australia and refused to return home. Far from Australia, another Hungarian sportsman, football legend Puskas, will also apply for political asylum in Austria.

Hungarian athletes Laszlo Tabort (L), Gyorgy Karpati (C) and Ervin Zador (R), pictured on 8 December 1956, decided to seek political asylum in Australia. © AP Photo

The results

In the final ranking, the Soviet Union, which is participating in the Summer Olympics for the second time, will overtake the United States and occupy the first place. Hungary will occupy fourth place. No Arab country is present in Melbourne.

Gamal Abdel Nasser succeeded in nationalizing the Suez Canal and gained great notoriety in the Arab world, but his political career collapsed after the Six Day War and Israel's revenge.

The France and Great Britain will no longer succeed in re-establishing their authority in the Levant.

Hungary remained in the Soviet shadow for more than thirty years.

Decryption of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics by historian Thierry Terret


Thierry Terret, historian of sport and Olympism. © RFI

See also:

  • OJ: the history of the Games, the Games of History
  • Helsinki 1952: Summer Olympics in the midst of the Cold War

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