When countries were at war, sports was still trying to find common grounds for them – a place where they can end their differences to meet each other in the true spirit of sportsmanship. Sports has helped countries find peace but some sports events have also ushered war.

Blood in the Water Match

The 1956 water polo semi-final match between Hungary and Soviet Union is often referred as the “Blood in the Water” match. Unfortunately, this match was more than a commemoration of Hungary’s victory against USSR 4-0. The match was held in Melbourne at the 1956 Olympics. It took place on December 6, 1956 with the Hungarian Revolution fresh in the mind of the players.

On October 23, 1956 the students of Budapest University of Technology and Economics rose against the Soviet puppet government of Budapest and began an uprising that was difficult to control. In an effort to bring the uprising to an end, Soviet tanks made their way to the roads of Hungary on November 1. These tanks attacked the revolutionists and were soon joined by air strikes and artillery bombardments.

The Hungarian water polo team was preparing for the Olympics at that time in a mountain training camp in Budapest. They were soon moved to Czechoslovakia so that they do not get caught up in the revolution. They had no news of the uprising till they reached Melbourne two months later. The carnage at the revolution had created a fervor in the players to win the game and return the pride of Hungary.

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On the day of the match, the Hungarians and the Russians were prepared to beat each other in a match that was more than just water polo on that day – it was a match for pride. Kicks and punches were exchanged between both countries and Hungarian player Ervin Zador seemed to be the hero of the day as he scored two goals. The game was won by Hungary 4-0, but just in the final minutes of the match, Zador was struck by Russian player ValentinProkopov. Zador had a bleeding gash on his forehead which brought many angry spectators to the concourse abusing and spitting on the Russians.

Zador was struck near the pool and many exaggerated that the pool turned red, which is why the match is often called as the Blood in the Water match. Hungary won the gold medal but Zador was not able to play in the finals because of his injury. He, alog with some of his teammates chose to look for asylum in the West instead of returning to their homeland which was under the pro-Soviet regime.

1971 US-China Ping Pong Diplomacy

United States and China did not have diplomatic or economic relations for almost 20 years. This began with China’s entry into the Korean War in 1950. United States saw China as an aggressor and neither country involved themselves in any form of relationship with each other. But the 31st World Table Tennis Championship held in Nagoya, Japan in 1971, gave the two countries a chance to establish a truce.

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When the US table Tennis team was in Japan for the championship, they received an invitation to visit China. People’s Republic of China was known for the importance it gave to sports in diplomacy. The country had allowed athletes to travel overseas during the period of isolation when travelling was restricted. The invitation was received by the US Team on April 6th and they visited China on April 10th becoming the first US nationals to have visited China since 1949.

It was extremely unusual for the players to have been invited to China even though major US diplomats like Senator Eugene McCarthy had talked about his interest in visiting the country but was unable to get the trip arranged.

The visit was a result of a friendly encounter of a Chinese player with a player from United States. Glenn Cowan of the Unites States Table Tennis team missed his bus when he was practicing the game with Chinese player Liang Geliang. When it was time to close the training area, Cowan did not have his bus waiting for him and he was glad to find a Chinese player waving at him from the Chinese team bus. Cowan was talking casually with the Chinese through an interpreter when Zhuang Zedong, a popular Chinese player came up to him and gifted him a silk-screen portrait of Huangshan Mountains. This chance meeting led to the eventual invitation from China for the US players to visit the country.

9 players, 4 officials and 2 spouses visited China on April 10 and enjoyed a pleasant stay till April 17th. They played games, visited historical monuments like the Great Wall of China and the Summer Palace and also watched ballet. This event in sports history helped two countries resolve their political concerns and led to the visit of President Richard Nixon to China which thawed the conflicts and gave rise to political and economic relationship between USA and China.

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Would you like to read more about this topic? This book might interest you: Historical Sport Events.