Category Archives: Sport

The Brighton Bombing: Trouble on the mainland.

‘An Irish sky looks down and weeps
Upon the narrow Belfast streets,
At children’s blood in gutters spilled,
In dreams of glory unfulfilled
As part of freedom’s price to pay.
My youngest son came home today.’

Eric Bogle, from ‘My youngest son came home today.’

A little before 3am on 12th October, 1984, a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, targeting the Conservative Party conference which was being held in the seaside resort. In September of that year, a man called Patrick Magee, a member of the Irish Republican Army (the IRA), stayed in the hotel for three days as ‘Roy Walsh’, and had planted the bomb with a 24 day delay on the timer. This was a similar tactic to one developed in Spain by the Basque terrorist group, ETA, who often infiltrated building firms leading to bombs being set to detonate months or even years later in the houses of leading politicians, sometimes using radio detonation. Magee’s bomb killed five people and seriously injured many more including Norman Tebbitt, a senior MP in the Conservative Party, who was President of the Board of Trade, and his wife, Margaret, who was left paralysed. However, the main targets were the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and members of her Cabinet, all of whom survived, mainly out of sheer luck. The attack shocked the country and the world, but why did it happen?

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The Grand Hotel in 2012. © Copyright Peter Tarleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Patrick Magee was born in Belfast in 1951, and was in his late teens when the ‘troubles’ started in Northern Ireland. But his actions were not simply the result of what had happened during his lifetime for they had roots deep in the troubled history of Ireland and its relationship with Britain, or more significantly, England. It is a history which is long and complicated, open to a wide range of interpretations and often baffling. Despite the relative ‘peace’ since the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998, there are many people who remain trapped or haunted by the history of Ireland, especially that of the six counties of Ulster which form Northern Ireland. In Britain, especially in England, it is largely misunderstood or ignored, a matter of no importance or one that is too complex to consider. In the province itself, as in the rest of Ireland and parts of Scotland, it is a story which lives today, a story of injustice and treachery, of power and bullying, of theft and murder, a story which cannot be ignored or excused. Those who try to ignore the troubled history of the British in Ireland and Northern Ireland cannot begin to understand the problems, heal the wounds nor begin to address the future.

The statement issued by the IRA after the bombing of the Grand Hotel said: “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.” The use of the word ‘give’ cut to the heart of the issue in the eyes of the Republican movement: it was focused on power and control. As with the Civil Rights Movement, abuse of power was the issue, as decisions about the people, resources and institutions of Northern Ireland were taken in London, by people who saw the province as being under their control. It was, therefore, an issue rooted in Empire, focusing on freedom and the right to self-determination; those who benefited from the situation wanted it to continue while, quite naturally, those who resented living in a ‘colony’ were keen to see the restoration of a united Ireland. 

Patrick Magee was, of course, not acting alone when he planted the bomb. He was part of a movement, a small but committed band of people who were willing to act with the greatest violence to achieve what they believed was the right, true or just situation, the reunification of Ireland, free from ‘English’ control. The IRA was the most well-known Republican group, although in the early 1970s it had split into two wings, the ‘Official IRA’ and the ‘Provisional IRA’, which was responsible for nearly all terrorist attacks carried out by the Republican movement after 1972. The Brighton Bombing of 1984 was carried out by the ‘Provos’, and was just one very high profile act in a terrible struggle which cost thousands of lives. It was another knot in the web of relationship between these two islands off north-west Europe, two islands where the people generally get on pretty well together. To people across the world, and many within the United Kingdom itself, the troubles hardly make sense; it can only make sense when you consider the power of the past, and, most of all, how you read, select and interpret that history.

Choosing a starting point for this history is difficult. It is not unreasonable to begin in 1800, when the island of Ireland officially lost its independence and was united with Great Britain, so creating ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. Just a few years after the USA had declared its independence from Britain, and with Napoleon Bonaparte beginning to lead a rejuvenated French army across Europe, the government in London was deeply concerned about national security. In an age of empires, when slavery was still legal and the idea of rights was in its infancy, the status and welfare of Ireland and the Irish mattered little to London. Ireland’s location made it a potential back-door for attack, especially as it was a country which was predominantly Catholic. In these days before the Battle of Trafalgar meant that Britannia ‘ruled the waves’, ensuring that Ireland was under the control of the ‘United Kingdom’ made perfect sense in Westminster. So it was that the cross of St. Patrick was added to the ‘Union Flag’, creating what we know today as the red, white and blue of the ‘Union Jack’. Ireland was integrated into the British Empire, that vast area which many people would actually see as ‘England’s Empire’. The fact that today there is a country called the ‘Republic of Ireland’ and a province called ‘Northern Ireland’ is a particular legacy at the heart of the tensions.

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The development of the ‘Union’ flag. The Scottish saltire was combined with the cross of St. George following the Act of Union in 1707, and in 1800, the cross of St. Patrick was added to create the ‘Union’ flag. This is still the flag of the country whose official name is ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, which most people don’t know. They also tend to get upset when told that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not recognised as countries in their own right. They only really exist for sport, which annoys FIFA and UEFA, the world and European football organisations, as it means the UK gets to enter four teams for each competition. (Author: Paula Guilherme; source: here)

The division of the thirty two counties of Ireland into two sections, the Republic of  Ireland and Northern Ireland, is the most recent expression of an ancient struggle for power. Patrick Magee, the ‘Provos’ and the Brighton bomb wrote just one section of a dark chapter in the long and troubled relationship between England and Ireland. England has sought to dominate Ireland to a greater or lesser degree since the reign of Henry II in the 12th century and tension has existed ever since. There were many problems before the decades of suffering in the Twentieth Century but the lowest points came when Oliver Cromwell ruled Britain in the 1650s and with the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-51. The power of these and many other events has to be appreciated if anyone wants to understand how we ended up in this place to begin with; as much as any country in the world, history is alive in Ireland.

The history taught and remembered by a nation reveals a great deal about it. The events it chooses to celebrate, the memorials it erects, the places it sanctifies and the people it honours, combine to both express and reinforce its sense of self, its identity. History is a powerful influence in justifying status and action in the modern world, as, say, the membership of the Security Council at the United Nations shows. Success, victory and power achieved in the past can play a huge part in creating a sense of status and expectation for the future. Those ‘victories’ have usually been achieved and maintained through violence in some form, bringing economic, political and social influence to certain countries, institutions and classes at the expense of others. The presumed right of the descendants of the victors to continue to act in the same or similar ways to those of the past can breed a not unexpected resentment over the years. The language of resistance used by Winston Churchill during World War II, for example, shows how much the British people feared being taken over by  a foreign power; there can be no surprise that other countries should have had a similar feeling towards British control, even though they were not able to resist so effectively.

The uncomfortable truth for some people in a modern, liberal democracy, is that history is riddled with examples of ‘Might is right’. This cannot be avoided and much of the wealth and status of today’s dominant forces rests on the gains of war, empire and exploitation. In our pasts, people fought, explored, competed, dominated, controlled and exploited others; through such methods did England become Britain and then an empire. This tiny nation, what is basically the eighth largest island and the eightieth largest country in the world today, sandwiched between Guinea and Uganda, became the dominant force in the world for a century and remains a significant player on the world stage today. Despite the many skills and attributes of its people, the influence of force in English and British history cannot be ignored. Whether it was victory over Wales and Scotland, the Netherlands, France or India, war has been integral to the growth and maintenance of British power. This is not a criticism but an observation, of course; wars happen, but that should not mean they are simply dismissed or ignored. As Churchill suggested, the British people would do all they could resist the Nazi threat and it should be no surprise that other nations should feel the same way when Britain invaded.

The history of the English/British in Ireland does not read well for the majority of ordinary people in that country, who did not partake of the benefits that came to those who allied themselves with London. Over the centuries, most people saw England as a cruel and oppressive force led by people who were indifferent to plight of the Irish who were largely dismissed by as Catholic, backward and, almost deservedly, poor. Differences in language, industry, culture and especially religion were all issues which divided the two countries, leading England to be seen as the oppressor and Ireland as the threat. The power and wealth clearly lay in London rather than Dublin but that did not mean that there was compliance and acceptance across Ireland. Oliver Cromwell was a particular sign of division and hatred. As a ‘Puritan’, that most extreme brand of Protestantism, Cromwell ruled Britain for nearly a decade following the execution of King Charles I in 1649. His strong Protestant views meant that he saw the mainly Catholic Irish as a source of great danger and he willingly used his army on a people who had supported the recently executed King Charles. Cromwell’s attempts to bring the Irish to heel unleashed a wave of violence and the destruction of the town of Drogheda, in particular, has entered folk lore as the most potent symbol of England’s capacity for evil and calculated indifference towards the people of Ireland.

Two hundred years after Cromwell, disaster once again struck Ireland and English influence was once again blamed. The Irish ‘Potato Famine’ was the last famine to hit Western Europe and one of the most disastrous events in Irish history. The failure of the potato crop over several years devastated large swathes of the country, leading to the death of over one million and the emigration of millions to countries across the globe. This movement of people out of Ireland continued after the famine with emigration to many parts of Britain, Australia, and especially the USA, fostering massive resentment towards England which is still seen today in, for example, sport and the use of English accents to suggest sinister evil in Hollywood films. In 1840, the population of Ireland had been around 8 million; by 1900 it was below 4 million. This was at a time when populations everywhere else in Europe were increasing dramatically ,even ,  population of Ireland is still well below the figure for the early 19th century, the only European country for which this is true. English Protestant landowners, as well as the Westminster Government, were held responsible for the failure to deal with the blight which decimated the potato crop on which so many millions of peasants depended. It was the only crop which failed in those years yet food could not be found for the poor, some of whom resorted to eating leaves and even grass. The ‘Potato Famine’ touched every family in the country and it cemented the image of ‘perfidious Albion’, as the natural disaster of the ‘potato blight’ was made so much worse by the indifference and cruelty of Government officials who did too little too late to help the peasants who starved across the country. The frustration grew over the years amongst the survivors, especially the emigrants, festering into the deepest hostility in some areas, an anger expressed in many of the songs and stories of that period. The IRA would eventually grow from that anger and the desire for freedom, justice and, it must be said, revenge.

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A reminder of the power of history: a mural on a house in Ballymurphy, Belfast, commemorating the ‘Great Famine’. (Author: unknown; source: here)

In the wake of the ‘Potato Famine’, resentment amongst Irish Republicans, who wanted independence from Britain, became increasingly aggressive from the 1860s. At the heart of this development was a group called ‘The Fenians’ who launched attacks against the British Government both in Ireland and in England. Much of their support came from Irish emigrants to the USA who had settled in the major cities of the north-east, such as New York and Boston. Some had made money since settling in the USA but they never forgot the reason why they had been forced to leave their homes, memories often fired by stories told by parents and grandparents. This fostered the development of various groups keen to fight back against Britain, trying to lead the struggle for freedom from English control. Ideology, anger and fund raising worked together, supporting groups like the Fenians and fostering a natural tendency to undermine the country which ruled a quarter of the globe. There was a deep sense of the injustice that fed the resentment against an elite and privileged group in England which seemed to have grown fat and rich on the ‘blood of the poor’. The last man to be publicly hanged in Britain was actually a Fenian, a man called Michael Barrett, who was found guilty for the deaths of 12 people in the ‘Clerkenwell Bombings’ in 1868. Such a public show of punishment would not stop the fund-raising or the volunteers, though, and Irish-American support for resistance to British rule would continue throughout the Twentieth Century.

The ‘Fenians’ themselves took their inspiration from Irish history as they looked back to the men and women who had rebelled against the English over the years. Two of these were Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) and Robert Emmett (1778-1803), both of whom had seen their efforts end in glorious failure. These two men became iconic figures for the Republican movement, their lives honoured in songs and music, and, indeed, ‘The Wolfe Tones’ is the name of a hugely popular band famous for playing rebel songs since 1963. However, despite the numerous attempts to resist British rule through force, some people tried to bring change through politics, most notably one inspirational and controversial figure,namely, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891). Immortalised in song as Avondale’s ‘proud eagle, Parnell who was one of the most important politicians of the late Victorian era. In an age when Ireland returned nearly one hundred MPs to Westminster, he focused his campaigning on the issue of the land and his cooperation with the great Liberal Prime Minister, WE Gladstone, saw the introduction of the First Home Rule Bill in the 1880s, a law which would have given some independence to Ireland. The Bill failed and Parnell fell from power thanks to the scandal that surrounded his affair with a married woman, Mrs. Kitty O’Shea. It is remarkable that a Cambridge educated Protestant landowner had united the country behind him, but the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ failed to deliver real change and the political process was weakened in the process; Home Rule would never satisfy a hard core of people,  for whom the full independence of the Irish state was demanded. Charles Stewart Parnell died in Hove at the age of just 45. It is never possible to know what might have been but, if he had lived for another twenty years or so, it is likely that there is much that might have been different and, maybe, better. As it was, Home Rule failed three times before the ‘Great War, each defeat exacerbating the anger and resentment of Irish Republicans.

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Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891): ‘The Uncrowned King of Ireland’. (Author: unknown; source: here)

The most significant of the Home Rule Bills was, in many ways, the third which was introduced by the Herbert Asquith’s government just before the war. Following on Gladstone’s footsteps, this was another attempt by the Liberals to grant some independence to the people of Ireland while keeping the country as a whole under the control of Westminster. Not all people were keen on such a prospect, though, with the Conservatives in Britain and the Unionists in Ireland, being fiercely against the Bill. The Third Home Rule Bill was a divisive piece of legislation, creating great hopes amongst its supporters but triggering massive anxiety amongst those who favoured the old order. The Conservatives, under the leadership of Andrew Bonar Law, gave their total support to the Unionists of Ireland, committing all Tory MPs to stopping the Bill becoming law. The Unionists feared a take-over by Republicans and, in 1913, they established militia groups or armed gangs, to protect the Protestant community; this was the UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Unionist leader, Edward Carson was the first of many thousands who signed the ‘Ulster Covenant’, a commitment to defend the Union which kept Ulster, the predominantly Protestant province of Ireland, within the United Kingdom. In response to the founding of the UVF and the signing of the Covenant, the most ardent supporters of Home Rule (and of full independence for Ireland) set up their own militia group, ‘The Irish Volunteers’, a body which grew out of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had worked for many decades alongside supporters in the USA to force the British out of the country. But then the Great War started and everything seemed to be put on hold.

Edward Carson (1854-1935): he was the hard-line leader of the Ulster Unionists who was also famous as the barrister who destroyed his ‘old friend’ and fellow student, Oscar Wilde. He joined the War Cabinet under David Lloyd-George in 1917 and was knighted and later became Baron Carson, all signs of his place within the British establishment. (Author: unknown; source: here)

The Great War put an end to immediate prospect of Home Rule for Ireland, and many thousands of Irishmen volunteered to fight in the British Army. This did not signify an acceptance of British rule, though, and there was a well-known saying amongst Irish Republicans that, ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’. The most famous example of this came during the war itself with the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916. On Easter Monday, 24th April, a group of ‘Irish Volunteers’ under the leadership of Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Eamonn De Valera and others, launched an attack in Dublin. Although there had been months of planning, things were chaotic – and known by the authorities. The confusion was summed up by the capture of Sir Roger Casement, an Anglo-Irish diplomat, who was bringing weapons from Germany to support the rebellion. Despite the problems, things went ahead with the aim of taking over key public buildings in the capital in the hope that this would lead to an uprising of the ordinary people. The ‘Easter Rising’ turned out to be a disaster as the British Army suppressed the rebellion, destroyed the General Post Office, where the core of the rebel forces were fighting, and killed many of the rebels. More importantly, the Government put the surviving leaders on trial and found them all guilty of treason, imprisoning some but executing 13. These men became martyrs for the Republican cause, heroes of Ireland whose lives are still celebrated today. The most powerful moment came when James Connolly, one of the leaders who had been badly wounded in the fighting, had to be propped up in a chair in order to be killed by firing squad. The rebels might not have succeeded in life, but in dying at the hands of the British in such a way, they came to inspire many followers down the years, their deaths perceived as yet another sign of English cruelty and oppression.

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A memorial to the leaders of the Easter Rising who were executed at Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, in  1916. Gerald Seymour’s quote from ‘Harry’s Game’, that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has rarely been more clearly seen. (Author: Unknown, source: here)

As the Great War entered what was to be its final year, tensions were growing in the Republican camp as victory for Britain and its allies became more likely. The dilemma over what to do next was a cause of much debate. The arguments were long and complex, and they saw the rise of ‘Sinn Féin’ as the main political party to represent the Republican cause under the leadership of a key figure in Irish history, Eamonn de Valera. (‘Sinn Fein’ is Gaelic for ‘We ourselves’ or ‘Ourselves alone’, a popular phrase amongst Republicans in the 19th century.) The party would retain close links with the IRA which was formed in 1919 as the Irish Volunteers were re-established. The following years saw great tension and conflict in Ireland as the British responded to a new ‘guerilla’ war fought by the IRA by sending in one of the most notorious forces ever: the Black and Tans. Wearing black jackets and khaki trousers, this force was a mixture of experienced soldiers from the war with numerous criminals who became the most hated symbol of English oppression. Their most notorious action was the killing of 14 people during a Gaelic football match at Croke Park, Dublin, on 21st November, 1920, which was done in retaliation for the killing of the same number of British by the IRA earlier in the day; it was a day which summarised the  atrocities committed by each side.

During 1921, in an attempt to find peace of some kind, negotiations took place in London as the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, tried to broker a deal. Eamonn de Valera and Michael Collins, both key figures in the Republican movement, had important roles in this, with Collins effectively signing his own death warrant when he was sent to London for the talks and accepted a deal that angered many of the Republicans. The Agreement split the Republican movement in two and caused the Irish Civil War of 1921-22. Collins himself was just one of many victims of that war, killed by the IRA during an ambush in Cork. Eventually a deal was reached which saw the establishment of a semi-independent ‘Irish Free State’ in the south of Ireland (Eire) while six of the nine counties of Ulster became what we now know as ‘Northern Ireland’. Peace of a kind broke out but not a peace that would last. The Irish Fee State’s status changed in 1936 and again in 1949, when it became the Republic of Ireland, but peace in the North was always a fragile thing. In the late 1960s, after simmering for many years, ‘The Troubles’ began in earnest and the IRA launched its campaign of terror. Other Republican organisations, such as the INLA, the Irish National Liberation Army, were formed and played their part in the fighting against the British Army and Unionist paramilitary groups, such as the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and the UDA (Ulster Defence Association). The fighting would come to devastate the community and be a feature of the daily news for thirty years or more; nearly 3500 died in ‘the Troubles’, the vast majority of them being aged under 40.

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British troops were sent to Northern Ireland in 196. This mural honours the women and children who challenged a military on the Falls Road, a heavily Catholic part of Belfast. (Author: unknown; source: here)

Tensions had never completely disappeared from Northern Ireland in the fifty years that separated the end of the Great war and the start of ‘the Troubles’. In the 1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, many Catholics and Republicans began to campaign for equality in the Province. They opposed what they saw as a form of segregation in the Province based on religious belief, claiming that certain jobs, better housing and access to education, for example, favoured the protestant community. Special significance focused on the role of the courts, the legal system and the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which were almost completely Protestant and, consequently, offered little by way of justice or protection to the Catholic community. In August, 1969, with tension and violence on the rise, the British Prime Minister, Labour’s Harold Wilson, made the decision to send troops onto the streets of Northern Ireland to keep the peace; it would be nearly 30 years before they could leave. The ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998 may be an imperfect document in the eyes of many but it was a key moment in bringing peace to the province. Tensions remain, though, often surfacing in the ‘Marching Season’, that period of June and July when the Unionists march in memory of events like the Battle of the Boyne, when ‘King Billy’, William of Orange, defeated the last Catholic king of England, James II. The past comes painfully to life at such times, when the wearing of a bowler hat and a sash by members of the Protestant Lodge, the ‘Orangemen’, can trigger a wave of hatred and anger, which has its roots in an event from over 300 years ago.

As mentioned, it was the issue of Civil Rights which brought many Republicans onto the streets in protest during the 1960s. Inspired by events in the USA, where improved conditions for Black Americans had been achieved through protest, both peaceful and violent, many Catholics saw similarities with their own situation. One protest in particular triggered a massive reaction around the world, the ‘Bloody Sunday’ march in Derry or Londonderry on 30th January, 1972, when British troops shot 13 civilians, an action that many believe swelled the ranks of the IRA enormously. The anger and deep-seated sense of injustice felt in the wake of ‘Bloody Sunday’ was to tear Ulster apart over thirty years. It was those feelings which led Patrick Magee to try to blow up Margaret Thatcher and the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1984. The actions were taken by a group which refused to follow the democratic process or peaceful negotiation as they believed they would not achieve what they wanted in that way. They tried to force change behind the barrel of the gun as they believed there was no other way to do it. The roots of their actions have to be found deep in history, and the interpretation of history going back to 1972, 1916, 1845, 1803, 1798, 1688, 1651 and even 1169. Things which most British people have neither heard of nor care for, were at the heart of hundreds of murders, injuries and violence across many traumatic decades. The bombs were the horrid, frightening cry of Republican anger which meant that the IRA saw themselves not as terrorists or criminals but as self-defenders and protectors. Thus it was that in the 1970s the IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison started the ‘dirty protests’ where they refused to wear prison uniforms or use the toilets provided, protests which ultimately led to the famous ‘Hunger Strikes’ of 1981.

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A mural honouring Bobby Sands (1954-81). (Author: kwekubo; source: here)

Those IRA hunger strikers included many leading prisoners of the movement, most famously, Bobby Sands. Sands was the first of a number of IRA prisoners to refuse to eat any food, starting his protest on 1st March, 1981, claiming the right to be treated as a ‘political prisoner’. He died after 66 days on hunger strike. He was 27 years old at the time and had actually been elected as an MP just before the ‘Hunger Strike’ began. In all, ten IRA prisoners would die on Hunger Strike, deaths which would harden attitudes on both sides. Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara, Thomas McElwee, Bobby Sands and the others who died would enter into legend with songs written, and memorials built, in their honour; in the rest of the UK, they would generally be seen as crazed terrorists, evil and destructive individuals who sort only to destroy ‘the country’. Extreme situations tend to breed extreme actions and, pushed to the margins, neither the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the main political parties, nor the IRA and its supporters, would negotiate or compromise at the time, and so the Troubles were nourished.

Patrick Magee was released from prison in 1999 as part of the prisoner release programme which was part of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. He had served fourteen years for his crime, a term which many saw as inadequate punishment, his release being a travesty of justice. Magee had been born in a small nationalist ghetto of Belfast, growing up surrounded by the stories of his grandfather who had been in the IRA in the 1920s. The fear  and frustration of his community matched the fear and anxiety of the Protestant majority, a situation his parents tried toe scape by moving to England, but Magee returned to play his part in the struggle, joining the IRA in the mid-1970s.  His actions destroyed many lives at Brighton, his own dreadful page in a terrible history anger, injustice, fear and violence.

Patrick Magee emerged from prison with a first class degree from the Open University and a PhD based on the way the Troubles were presented in novels. After his release he said: ”Every generation of republicans has had to turn to violence. I would hope that now at last we can stand on our own two feet and fight our corner politically. The potential is now there at last.” His life, like the Troubles, was  rooted in the ‘tragedy of history’, those powerful memories which have a long ‘half-life’, taking more than just a few hundred years to die away and become harmless.

 

One note for sports fans. Croke Park is the home of the GAA (the Gaelic Athletic Association) and it banned the playing of ‘British’ sports: rugby, cricket, football. So it was that when the Irish Football Association and the Rugby Union needed to play their internationals at a new venue due to the rebuilding of Lansdowne Road, it became a hugely important moment. The GAA faced opposition within its ranks but finally agreed and allowed Croke Park to be used. The first rugby match played against England in 2007 became a particularly powerful event, especially as the British National Anthem had never been played there. It passed off peacefully, marking a significant development in relations between the two nations and within Ireland itself. That’s the power of history, sport and reconciliation at work. Maybe it helped that the Irish won, 43-13.

 

 

 Find out more:

Films: ‘Hunger’ (2008), ‘Michael Collins’ (1996), ‘In the name of the Father’ (1993), ‘Bloody Sunday’ (2002) and ‘The wind that shakes the barley’ (2006)

Books: ‘Making sense of the troubles: A history of the Northern Ireland Conflict’ by David McKittrick and David McVea; ‘Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction’ by Marc Mulholland; ‘The Northern Ireland Troubles’ by Aaron Edwards; ‘A Place Apart: Northern Ireland in the 1970s’ by Dervla Murphy; ‘Harry’s Game’ by Gerald Seymour; ‘Mad Dog: The Rise and Fall of Johnny Adair and ‘C’ Company’ by David Lister;

Books/TV: ‘A History of Ireland’ by Robert Kee and ‘The Story of Ireland’ by Fergal Keane and Neil Hegarty

Songs: Music and song are powerful sources for the way history has been passed on in Ireland. There are many examples to choose from, especially from the Republican perspective, including: ’60 Greatest Irish Rebel Songs’, albums by the Wolfe Tones, ‘Spirit of Freedom’ by Christy Moore; ‘Ulster’s Orange Anthems’ offers a Unionist view and a clear contrast.  These are very one-sided interpretations and should, therefore, be used with great care and thought. Other songs, such as, ‘Soldier’ by Harvey Andrews. ‘To find their Ulster peace’ by Vin Garbutt and ‘My youngest son came home today’ and ‘It’s only Tuesday’ by Eric Bogle, offer reflections from a different perspective, as does ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ by U2.

 

 

 

Heidi Krieger: Blue pills and gold medals.

Heidi Krieger: Blue pills and gold medals.

“I still say today that they killed Heidi”. Andreas Krieger, 2013.

Sport is disparaged by some people for its futility, the idea of adults playing children’s games, wasting their time in pursuit of achievements that make little or no difference to ordinary lives. As a friend of mine once said when asked to watch a soccer match: ‘Oh, I don’t think so. The thought of 22 millionaires chasing a pig’s bladder around a pitch is not really my idea of entertainment’. There is, no doubt, some very real justification for this view, with genuine amazement and anger at some of the wages that are paid to top sports stars – and the astronomical figures that are paid for their transfers between clubs. And  when the hype starts over events such as the Olympics and the World Cup, it is natural that some people will really wonder what all the fuss is about. But as some other posts have suggest, some of us do believe that sport matters and is, at times, rather more than just a game. At its best, people love sport because it is unscripted drama and, without being too grand, it says something about societies and cultures as well as the human condition. The skills, fitness, training, conditioning and teamwork required do offer something to admire; the control of emotions and the handling of pressure can offer insights that are valued by many other professionals; and the intensity of competition, the passion, the spectacle and the final result can inspire individuals, give nations pride and create memories that last a lifetime. From Borg v McEnroe to Ali v Foreman, from the Gladiators to the modern Olympics, from WG Grace to Babe Ruth, from Sumo wrestling to cross country skiing, from Brazil in 1970 to England’s win in the Ashes in 2005, sport matters on so many levels.

But sometimes it’s not quite like that and here are two famous examples of why sport is sometimes less uplifting.

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Italian marathon runner, Dorando Pietri, crosses the line at the end of the marathon in London in 1908.

(Author: unknown; source: here)

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Lance Armstrong heading for victory in the Tour de France, 2003.

(Author: Gawain78 Source: here)

The looks and the style seen in these two photos are quite different but they are rather similar as both lost their titles: Pietri was disqualified after being helped by judges when he fell a  number of times in sight of the line while Armstrong lost all seven of his Tour titles, as well as many other awards, a lot of money and his reputation, after being found guilty of the use of banned drugs. One was an amateur, guilty of getting unexpected help as he pushed himself to the limit in pursuit of a medal; one was found guilty of the planned and systematic use of drugs so as to push his limits beyond any that were possible under his own ability. Something has changed in sport, and in society, in the century that separates Pietri from Armstrong – and that something is not good as it has left question marks over many achievements in many sports, not the least of them being cycling and athletics, which this post will look at a little more.

Once upon a time, in what might be seen as some naive and glorious days, athletics was all about individual people pushing themselves to the limit, developing their skills, working hard and having a good clean competition. They did this while holding down a full-time job and got little or no reward for their labours. But things slowly changed and events like the Olympics, which were re-established in 1896, took on huge overtones of national pride – or at least they did from the 1930s onwards. In the increasingly nationalistic years between the world wars, victory in sport came to signify something special not just for the athlete concerned but for the nation and the system that they represented. Fascist leaders, for example, came to see their top athletes as products of their system, glorifying their stars as symbolic heroes whose powerful bodies and keen minds somehow reflected the supremacy of their ideology. While the record breaking miner, Aleksei Stakhanov (1906-77), might be a hero for Stalin’s Soviet Union, it was the likes of the boxer Max Schmeling (1905-2004) who Hitler wanted to present as a symbol of Nazi supremacy after his defeat of Joe Louis in 1936. Athletes became representatives, role models and examples of the best that a country could offer, symbols of  the ideology, the diet, the coaching, the lifestyle and so on. Sport was seen as a powerful tool for propaganda and a great turning point was reached with the Berlin Olympics of 1936 which Hitler believed had the potential to cast a revitalised Germany with the world  experiencing a spectacular event with Aryan athletes to the fore. As is well known, one Jesse Owens from the USA, put a number of files into the ointment at Berlin but that did not change the idea that sport could be used to enhance political power by the shaping of opinions. Sport had truly taken on a nationalistic dimension and this was only to be increased after World War II.

In the years following 1945, the Cold war developed between the Western powers which favoured capitalism and democracy, under the leadership of the USA, and the Eastern forces which chose state control and Communism, under the guidance of the USSR. Under Joseph Stalin, there was little time for, or interest in, the power of sport but under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, this was to change. A most significant year in this was 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s famous ‘Secret Speech’ (see the post on Khrushchev) which was part of a change of policy from the time of Stalin. The new idea of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ meant that the USSR was going to compete with the west and defeat it by showing the supremacy of its system in terms of art, culture, industry and, of course, sport. The goal would be that these victories would show the workers of the West that they would be better off under Communism and so lead to a revolution – and the collapse of capitalist democracies. Obviously this did not happen but the rise of Communist countries as sporting powers (at least in simpler sports which did not require too much by way of complex skills or technological expertise, such as motor racing, golf, tennis or horse racing) is obvious from the medals table in the Olympic Games from 1956 onwards (see the post on the Olympic Games). The drive for supremacy started in the USSR but was very soon adopted by the satellite states of Eastern Europe with a special emphasis being placed on women’s sport where things were less developed than in man’s sport and where changes based on greater strength and technique could be quickly turned into progress.

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Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), leader of the USSR whose commitment to ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ after 1956 changed the Cold war and was a major influence in the development of drug use in sport. (Author: Heinz Junge; Source: here)

As mentioned, Communist countries such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany soon developed major sporting programmes. High levels of participation were encouraged, elite athletes were identified, and special coaching facilities were established. The elite athletes became full-time in an age when few could do this in the West. Special diets were developed, new techniques explored and a propaganda system was built up to ensure high levels of support for the programmes. Leading athletes were ‘employed’ by the police or armed forces but then trained full-time at their respective sports. The benefits were clear as the USSR soon overtook the USA as the leading country at the Olympics. This was a huge shock to the USA and the West which had grown used to winning medals and dominating the Olympics, amongst other events. In an age in which television and media coverage of sport was developing rapidly, the sight of Communist athletes racing past the best the West could offer raised many questions – and doubts. These concerns in the West were matched by elation in the East but in the drive to maintain and strengthen the advantage, there was a move towards the first systematic use of drugs to enhance sporting performance, most notably in events which required strength and endurance. From the 1960s through into the 1980s, the use of drugs such as testosterone and anabolic steroids, was widespread, and it was all very easy as there was drugs testing at the time, which seems extraordinary to us but was a sign of the way the system tends to lag behind the cheats. One sign of the widespread power of drug use in these decades can be seen in the many records that were set then which marked extraordinary advances – and have not been matched since, especially in the women’s power events like the shot and discus.

But there was a price to be paid for this, and it fell on the athletes themselves. Young gymnasts, for example, were taken from their homes at an early age and forced to work incredibly long hours, often in great pain. For many of the girls chosen for the programmes, the plan was to keep them underweight so that puberty would be delayed which allowed greater flexibility to be maintained. Some went on to successful careers but many others ended up almost crippled through injuries and arthritis, the results of their work-load, training schedule and diet. However, drug use was most common in the endurance and power events, where anabolic steroids were seen to be hugely beneficial to performance. The discovery of the effects of, for example, testosterone on the female body were known and from the 1960s it was injected into many athletes in Communist countries, nowhere more so than in East Germany. Despite having a population of less than 20 million, only a third of the size of the more affluent West Germany, East Germany rose to be the third most powerful athletics nation in the world behind the USSR and the USA during the 1970s and 1980s. The claim made by the authorities was always that success was down to the power of the Communist system the quality of education, the superiority of coaching and the passion shown by the athletes but there was a simpler element to the reason. The use of drugs, of steroids and testosterone, was never mentioned but its effects were clear to all. The authorities were not keen to investigate because it would undermine the sport and run a risk of causing a massive political incident at a time when the Cold war was at its height but many people had serious questions about the progress made by so many people from a limited number of countries and in such specific events.

One particular story can sum up the experience of as many as ten thousand East German athletes, and the thousands of others from around the world, both under Communism and in the West, who ended up using drugs in sport. This is the story of Heidi Krieger, a shot putter born in East Berlin in 1966.

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Oral-Turinabol tablets as on display at the DDR Museum in Berlin. (Author: User:FA2010; Source: here)

Heidi Krieger was one of those athletes chosen for an athletics programme in this period who, as part of her training, was required to take a small blue pill. It was an anabolic steroid called ‘Oral-Turinabol’, which contained testosterone. It boosted her muscle growth and endurance as well as helping her to recover from injury more quickly. The distances she could throw the shot went up dramatically – but it had side-effects: increased risk of infertility, increased hair growth like stubble and chest hair, increased risk of breast cancer, greater heart problems and the risk of cancer. Heidi Krieger was just one of nearly a thousand athletes who suffered serious consequences from taking ‘Oral-Turinabol’. She was a successful athlete, winning gold in the shot put with a distance of 21.10 metres at the 1986 European Championships at which East German women won four of the six field events. There were 18 medals available in all for these six events and competitors from Communist countries won 15 of them. And it’s interesting to note that the distances achieved in winning the gold medals in the shot, discus and javelin at the European Championships in 1986 were all greater than those that won gold in Beijing Olympics of 2008 or at London in 2012.

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Heidi Krieger (1966-97) (Author: Wolfgang Thieme; Source: here)

But Heidi Krieger was never comfortable in herself after she started being given the bright blue pills when she was 14 or so. She was given the drug regularly over many years, eventually suffering significant side-effects, growing stubble and other bodily hair associated with men and starting to develop male genitalia. She and her friends watched as their noses grew wider, their hands got larger, their muscles expanded and they became more aggressive. Other complications such as depression, severe acne, liver malfunctions, much deeper voices and reduced libidos were all consequences of the ‘bright blue pills’. She eventually reached the point where she saw that the only way out was to have a sex-change operation and so it was that in 1997 she became ‘Andreas Krieger’. As Andreas, he married Ute Krause, a former East German swimmer, who had herself been forced to take ‘Oral-Turinabol’ pills many years before and had been driven to attempt suicide by the effects. The ‘Heidi Krieger Medal’ is now awarded annually in Germany, honouring an athlete who has combated doping in sport; the gold medal from 1986 forms part of the trophy.

The simple facts of the story of Heidi/Andreas Krieger hide the battle for supremacy in the Cold War. Ideology and image was so important that the system was all and individuals ceased to count. Powerful people at the top of the system, especially in Communism, were willing to use and abuse their own citizens in pursuit of victory, seeing each medal and each record as a nail in the coffin of the other side. Sport was as much a part of the Cold War as were speeches, spies and missiles. People were dehumanised in the pursuit of power and many suffered great emotional and psychological pain as well as physical suffering. It is another reminder that sport is important as a reflection of what human beings are capable of doing – both for good and ill.

And what happened through the use of drugs in sport cannot have been what Karl Marx had in mind when he imagined ‘Communism’ as a system which would create a world of opportunity, equality and justice for all. But this is not only a problem of the Eastern Bloc countries in the Cold War for the abuse of drugs in sport was going on in the West before the Berlin wall came down – and it has continued since, and few major countries or sports have escaped their influence: Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong and dozens of others in cycling; Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and many others in athletics; Mark McGwire and so many others in baseball; the lists go on and on.

But for all that,  sport still has the ability to inspire like few other things; maybe its just a tragic reality that drugs will now always be a part of the script and that they have done so much damage to people like Andreas Krieger.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘More Than A Game’ by Jan Stradling (Pier 9, Murdoch Books); ‘Rogues, Rotters, Rascals and Cheats’ by John Perry (John Blake Publishing Ltd., 2007); ‘Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport’ by Chris Clarke (OUP Oxford, 2013); ‘The Dirtiest Race in History: ‘Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 100m Final’ by Richard Moore (Wisden Publishing, 2013);  ‘Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’ by David Walsh (Simon & Schuster, 2013); ‘The Secret Race: Inside the hidden world of the Tour de France: doping, cover-ups and winning at all costs’ by Tyler Hamilton and David Coyle (Corgi, 2013); ‘The Death of Marco Pantani: A Biography’ by Matt Rendell (Phoenix, 2007).

Film: ‘The Armstrong Lie’ (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2014)

 

 

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water.

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A statue of Imre Nagy, a key figure in the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ of 1956. (Author: Adam78; Source: here)

 

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water

There is something profound and satisfying about the victory of the underdog. It is a fundamental part of the human story reaching back into ancient tales, such as those great matches like David and Goliath from the First Book of Samuel and Aesop’s tale of that tortoise sneaking ahead of a rather cocky hare; they touch into something profound and powerful in the human psyche. Whether it be because of size, age, wealth or weapons, we seem to rejoice in the victory of the weaker or out-numbered force, unless we happen to be on the other side, of course. There is always a story behind such victories, bringing a need to find the cause behind the unexpected result.

The history of sport, of course, provides so many of the most satisfying examples of the mighty being humbled by the lesser power: Germany’s Max Schmeling knocking out the great Joe Louis in 1936; the USA soccer team stunning the world when they beat England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup and Sunderland winning the FA Cup in 1973 against the ‘unbeatable’ Leeds United; Arthur Ashe out thinking Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon in 1975; Ireland crushing the mighty West Indies at cricket in 1969 after bowling them out for just 25. But it happens in more important matters, too: the Viet Minh withstanding the might of the USA in the Vietnam War; Mahatma Gandhi overcoming the British Empire through peaceful resistance to bring Indian independence; the Montgomery Bus Boycott seeing patience and perseverance rewarded by an end to segregation on the buses.  The commitment, creativity and courage shown in these events from the last century can still serve as an inspiration today. And one of these stories is known as ‘Blood in the water’, an event which combines sport, violence and politics in a game of water-polo.

The story focuses on Hungary, so let’s check where it is by looking at a map of central Europe. today, it is a country of about 10 million people today, one which has a very long and proud tradition; it was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire fought with Germany in the Great War (1914-18) before being divided up by the ‘Treaty of Triannon’ (1920), which was part of those agreements which are usually grouped together as ‘The Treaty of Versailles’. Hungary as we know it today was, therefore, created in the wake of the Great War.

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Hungary (Author: CIA; Source: here)

Anyway, now for a little background about the country. Hungary’s country’s capital city is Budapest, a fine place split by the River Danube, the second longest river in Europe which starts in Germany and flows nearly 1800 miles down to the Black Sea. The city is in two halves, the older part being ‘Buda’ on the western side of the river and the newer being ‘Pest’ on the east. The Hungarian language is very unusual, having links with Finnish and Estonian but not much else, so don’t expect to understand much should you visit; there are some very strange letter combinations, like ‘Magyarország’, the name for Hungary itself. By the way, the name ‘Hun’ for a German or Austro-Hungarian soldier in the Great War comes from the fact that the whole of the Central European region was settled by that tribe in the 5th century when they were led by ‘The Scourge of God’, Attila the Hun. That was probably a fairly obvious point but hopefully someone will appreciate it.

Although it has a rich history, Hungary tends to be a bit of a forgotten place for most people today but there are actually quite a few famous Hungarians that you should have heard of: Robert Capa, the photographer; Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actress; Erno Rubik, inventor of the Cube and other time-occupying devices; Lazslo Biro, inventor of the ball-point pen and the automatic gear box for cars; Ferenc Puskas, one of the greatest footballers of all time; Calvin Klein, fashion, and Estee Lauder, make-up; Drew Barrymore, Paul Newman and Tony Curtis are famous actors from a Hungarian background; Bartok and Liszt, are well-known composers; and tennis champion Monica Seles was also from Hungary.

Hungary was profoundly affected by defeat in the Great War. As mentioned above, the ‘Treaty of Trianon’ in 1920 saw similar punishments placed on the country as had been put on Germany by the more famous ‘Treaty of Versailles’. And just as in Germany, deep resentment was felt by the leaders and the people as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a long and hugely important history as part of the Habsburg (or Hapsburg) domain. This resentment proved to be a potent force, so that when the new Hungary was created, it took little time before it came under the control of a right-wing dictator. This was a less than brilliant but impeccably dressed naval officer called Admiral Horthy Miklos (1868-1957). Despite his limitations, Horthy was actually the longest surviving Fascist dictator of the inter-war period, ruling from 1920 to 1944 and just out-lasting Benito Musssolini in Italy. His position at the head of a fascist government was a sign of the frustration and anger at the defeat in the Great War, and its retreat into narrow and aggressive nationalist thinking echoed that seen elsewhere in the defeated nations.

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Admiral Horthy Miklos (as the surname comes first in Hungarian). One can only admire the hand on the sword, the uniform and the fine array of medals. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

The strong sense of nationalism in Hungary, a country which knew its traditions well, was only natural in a place which saw itself as being at the heart of Central European culture and learning. In the early 20th century, Hungary was a rather important country, being relatively wealthy and well-educated, and occupying a crucial region geographically. The country was used to making alliances, having been tied in with Austria and ruling so many other regions, so it was quite normal to enjoy strong political relations with the likes of Germany and Italy in the inter-war period. The humiliation of 1914-18 drove the country into the hands of the right-wing and so it was only natural that when World War II started, the country would fight alongside the Nazis. Without going into an analysis of the experiences of Hungary during World War II, for they are a major story in their own right, it is vital to know that it was the Soviet forces, the Red Army, which took control in 1945. Obviously, this left the country under the influence of Joseph Stalin and Communism, a massive ideological change compared to what had gone before. Naturally, Budapest was one of those cities Churchill referred to in 1946 as being one of ‘the ancient capitals of Europe’ which were on the wrong side of the ‘Iron Curtain’. 1946 was actually the year in which Hungary entered the record books as the country which suffered the very worst hyper-inflation of all time, its price rises even dwarfing those of Germany in 1922-23. As with Germany, it was reparations which were at the heart of the problem, although this time the payments had to be made to the USSR. The inflation rate of 41 900 000 000 000 000% meant prices were doubling every 13 hours and the government issued the highest value note of all time, the 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 pengo; the numbers were written quite small so that they could fit on. These numbers are so big that they become meaningless but it’s still good to know such things.

By the end of the war, Admiral Horthy had, of course, been forced to pack up his rather extensive wardrobe and move off into exile, finally arriving in Portugal via an appearance at the Nuremberg trials and some time living in Germany. By 1948, Hungary’s transformation from Fascism to Communism was complete as it joined the other East European countries under Stalin’s rule. A brief period of apparent liberty for the Hungarians had ended with the arrival in power of the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Rákosi Mátyás. A revolutionary going back to the days which had seen Horthy come to power, Rákosi was a particularly nasty man who was a true disciple of Stalin. He was known to the Hungarian people as ‘Old Arse Head’, and only a photo will suffice to explain this rather unpleasant but accurate description; while one should not judge people on looks alone, you will probably find yourself in agreement with the people on this one.

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Rákosi Mátyás (1892-1971) (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Even though he is sort of smiling in this picture, don’t be fooled; Rákosi was a deeply unpleasant man who oversaw the removal of many innocent people through the work of the AVO, the secret police. Several hundred thousand people disappeared in purges between 1948 and 1956 as he earned one of his other nicknames, ‘The Bald Murderer’. The Communist Party dominated life in Hungary as Rákosi proved his loyalty, and lack of imagination, by closely following Stalin’s policies of the Thirties. Opposition voices were crushed as he sought to impose totalitarian rule but then it all came to a sudden halt in 1956, three years after the death of his hero in Moscow.

Rákosi joined the various other leaders of the USSR’s satellite nations in Moscow for the XXth Party Congress. In the closed session for which the congress became famous, he was seen to go pale as he listened to Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’. The implications of this astonishing attack on Stalin was a clear sign of changes to come, a message soon heard and understood by the people as well as the leaders. Rákosi quickly became a victim of the new era and he disappeared from power and, quite naturally, the people of Hungary believed a better life awaited them; change following such a tyrant had to be for the better. This belief was soon strengthened by events in Poland, where there was an uprising in October, 1956. A significant outcome of this was that, for the first time, the local Communist Party was allowed to choose its own leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka. Admittedly, they had to chose someone who was ‘acceptable’ to Moscow but even so, this was a sign of change and ‘relaxation’ under Khrushchev; he was not as controlling as Stalin. To the people and the politicians, it really looked as though Khrushchev was acting on his speech by allowing greater freedom in some areas of life. In Budapest, there was a sense of hope and determination in the population that wanted to make that change real but few could have expected where it would lead them. there would be blood on the streets and in the water as a consequence of what happened next.

The basic details of the events of October-November 1956, the so-called ‘Hungarian Uprising’ or ‘Hungarian Revolution’, are quite straight-forward. The uprising developed as a result of anger and frustration at life under Communist rule. Led by students in particular, there were protests and calls for greater freedom of speech, improved living conditions, and an end to the controls from Moscow and oppression by the state forces. In a crucial and symbolic act, the protesters took control of the radio station in Budapest. naturally, they met opposition from the AVO, the police and the army, both Hungarian and Soviet, with fighting and destruction on a significant scale. People cut the Communist symbols from the centre of the Hungarian flags and launched revenge attacks on the much-hated AVO; many were executed in public. There was violence on the streets as vigilantes used any weapons they could find against the official powers.

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The extraordinary anger of the common people flooded out in attacks against the AVO, the secret police, as this photo of a street execution shows. (Author: unknown, Source: here)

But then, to everyone’s relief, a peace descended as the Red Army and the Hungarian forces withdrew. Khrushchev was clearly going to act in a different way from that which Stalin would have. The people seem to have believed the reports that were coming from Radio Free Europe, an American backed station, which seemed to offer support to the rebels, suggesting that the people were not fighting alone but would have American and Western support. With their hopes raised so high, the people looked to establish even greater freedoms, choosing Imre Nagy (1897-1959), as the new Prime Minister. Nagy (pronounced ‘Narj’) was a far more moderate Communist than most politicians and was seen as a compromise candidate, a figure who might introduce change while still being acceptable to Moscow. He would later be called a hero but at the time Nagy lacked both awareness and courage, always seeming to be playing catch up with the people and misjudging the tone of the rebellion.

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Imre Nagy, the leading Communist who was chosen to be the figure-head of the Hungarian Uprising. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Inn the end, though, it did not really matter because, after a short respite, the Red Army returned in force, with support from the Warsaw Pact forces, and took a ruthless revenge. The casualties were high on both sides as the uprising was dramatically and decisively crushed. the huge statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest might have been destroyed, and Stalin himself might have been criticised in Moscow, but Khrushchev was not soft, especially when he had the threat of his own destruction hanging over him from hard-liners in the Party and the Red Army. Over 2500 Hungarians died in the fighting between 23rd October and 10th November. Another 13 000 were injured and over 200 000 would flee the country soon after. 700 Communist soldiers died, some being shot by their own officers for refusing to attack civilians. Imre Nagy, the rather weak and unwilling leader of a ‘free’ Hungary, would later be executed, just one of the many to die. The ‘promised’ help from the West never came to the Hungarian people as US President Eisenhower was simply not prepared to risk a world war over a small Eastern Bloc country like Hungary. In addition to that, any hopes of gathering a Western alliance together to help Hungary were thrown into turmoil by the Suez Crisis which saw Britain, France and Israel make an unsuccessful attempt to impose their will in Egypt. Hungary was crushed. Thousands were dead, wounded or in prison. Fear, anger and a sense of betrayal were in many people’s hearts.

 

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Crowds gather around the giant statue of Stalin after it was pulled down in Budapest. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Considering the terrible state of affairs, it might seem strange but salvation of a kind was at hand for the Hungarian people. In the shadow of the greatest horror and suffering, a small sign of hope was to be found in a swimming pool 9 000 miles away  from Budapest. because, while there had been blood on the streets of Hungary, there was also to be blood in the water in Melbourne, Australia. Hungary has a great tradition of swimming. Outdoor pools are very common and many Hungarians are superb swimmers. They also have a great tradition of playing water polo, one of the toughest of all sports. Rather like handball but played in the water, teams of seven a side pass a ball to each other before attempting to score goals by throwing the ball into a net, like a small football goal. And like handball and basketball, it is supposed to be a game of no contact, a rule ignored by almost every team. Water polo is a tough game but it was never meant to be as violent as it got in 1956.

The Melbourne Olympics of 1956 were the first to be held in the northern winter months because Australia, of course, is in the southern hemisphere. This meant that it started just after the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ had ended in such a violent defeat for the ordinary people, the rebels of the country. The Hungarian water polo team travelled to Melbourne as one of the strongest contenders for the gold medal. But their journey to the games, and the competition itself, was over-shadowed by the events at home. The team made steady progress through the competition before reaching the semi-finals where they ended up facing the team from the Soviet Union. Traditionally, the two countries were great rivals but that took on a new level of enmity, thanks, of course, to the Moscow’s violent crushing of the revolution. The Hungarian team had been at a camp overlooking Budapest when the rebellion began. They had seen the smoke and heard the gun-fire before they were flown out to Australia. Reports of casualties and destruction had reached them so that they knew that in facing the Soviet Union they were doing more than playing a game; this was a rare opportunity for revenge, striking a blow for their friends and others who had fought and suffered at the hands of the AVO, the police and the tanks of the Red Army.

The match became the most famous in water polo’s history. It became known as the ‘Blood in the Water’ match, after violence erupted throughout the game. Players on both sides were kicked, bitten and punched but Hungary moved steadily ahead. They eventually won 4-0, refusing to show any respect to the team from the ‘senior’ country in Communism. Towards the end of the match, one of their star players, Ervin Zador (1935-2012), was punched so hard by his Soviet marker that he was cut above the eye. The crowd had been passionately involved in the match, as had both squads on the pool side, and this led to a riot. The referees, seeing that there was only a minute to play, abandoned the game, awarding the match to the Hungarians. Complaints were made by the Soviet team but to no avail; victory was given to the Hungarians who went on to take the gold medal by defeating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final. But the real victory and the true glory rested on that semi-final victory. It was a triumph summed up in this famous photo of Zador.

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‘Blood in the water’, Ervin Zador in 1956. (Author: Corbis; Source: here)

After the tournament, many of the Hungarian team refused to return home, with some staying in Australia while others went to the USA. Ervin Zador himself went to the USA where he would stay involved with water polo and swimming. As a coach he looked after a promising young swimmer called Mark Spitz, the man who would go on to set an Olympic record in 1972 by winning seven gold medals in the pool at Munich. But he will always be remembered in Hungary for spilling his blood for the glory of his country against their greatest enemy, one small cut to set against the blood of thousands.

‘All I could think about was, ‘Could I play the next match?’’ Ervin Zador, Water-Polo player

 

Find out more

Films: ‘Children of Glory’ (DVD – Lions Gate Entertainment, 2008)

Books: ‘Twelve Days: Revolution 1956’ by Victor Sebestyen (Phoenix, 2007); ‘Nine Suitcases’ by Bela Szolt (Pimlico, 2005); ‘More Than a Game’ by Jan Stradling (Pier 9, Murdoch books Ltd, 2009)

 

 

Marilyn Monroe: An icon, a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a president

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Marilyn Monroe: An icon, a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a president

Hearing that some actor in a ‘soap’ or a singer discovered on a reality show is ‘great’ is enough to send some of us heading for the ‘scream out loud’ button in our brains; in modern terminology, ‘great’ seems to mean what was once described as ‘pretty good’. The same is true with ‘icon’, a fine word which is now applied to almost anyone who has a slightly individualistic attitude, swears a bit and has a tattoo in Ancient Persian on their forearm or ear. Hearing that some young singer, soap actor, footballer or, indeed, a footballers’ wife or girlfriend, is an ‘icon’ disturbs those of us who look back to those who were far more deserving of the title. If they want to see themselves as icons then let them be measured against Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, Picasso and Pele, just to mention a few Twentieth Century figures worthy of iconic status.

Iconic figures are more than just stars. They have an extra dimension, a status, which helps to shape and define their age. They embody some essential dimension of the ideas and values of their era. Their looks, words, tastes and actions are imitated at the time and inspire those who follow. They seem to express an indefinable quality of that period so that they almost become it. Their names become a shorthand way of referring to the era. To see Ché Guevara’s face adorning a million T-shirts, posters and CD covers is a slightly sad insight on society over the last forty years; the most stylish rebel of the century casts a shadow of credibility which is eagerly sought by many people. Ché would no doubt be delighted by the interest but bewildered by the way his image has made millions for business while his message of revolution has been lost to those who ‘wear’ him.

Amongst the icons of the twentieth century, one of the most celebrated was born as simple Norma Jeane Baker. Over the years she was transformed into one of the most beautiful, glamorous and mixed up women ever. In a world where the paparazzi are a big business all of their own, as is trying to ensure privacy, the celebrated but tragically short life of Marilyn Monroe is a telling moment in the journey towards celebrity obsession, and one which is well worth knowing a little about. Where Marilyn went, many others have followed since – and her life is a warning to all those seek fame as their greatest goal.

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An early modelling photo of Norma Jeane Baker. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Marilyn Monroe was born on 1st June, 1926, in Los Angeles. Confusion surrounds her early life, especially regarding who her father was. Her original name was Norma Jeane Mortenson but she was baptised as Norma Jeane Baker after her mother, Gladys Baker, who suffered mental illness and was soon taken into an ‘institution’. As a child, Norma Jeane spent her life in care homes and orphanages before she was finally adopted in 1937. However, in 1942, disaster struck when the Goddards, her adoptive family, could no longer afford to look after her. Faced with returning to a care home, she decided to marry her neighbour, a 21 year old man called Jimmy Dougherty (1920-2005). In 1944, Dougherty went off to war with the US Marines and Norma Jeane went to work in a Munitions factory where she was spotted by a photographer called David Conover. She was a natural in front of the camera (the phrase ‘a photographer’s dream’ was often used about her for the way she seemed more natural in front of the camera than in normal life) and she appeared on the front cover of more than 30 magazines during the war. When Jimmy Dougherty returned from the war, Norma Jeane faced a choice: family or work. She chose work. In doing this she was facing a dilemma which was to challenge more women as the century unfolded, the tension between work and family. She chose a career and they split up, the divorce coming through in June, 1946, just after Dougherty returned to the USA.

By way of her career, Norma Jeane was aiming for the movies but going from being a model to a film star required some changes. ‘Norma Jeane Baker’ was not considered a suitable name for a budding star who wanted to get into films and so she changed it to ‘Marilyn Monroe’, Monroe being her grandmother’s name. In going for the name change, Monroe she was far from alone in the acting world. No doubt many people would expect to see a list at this point, so here is one of just a few actors who ditched their childhood name in favour of something more memorable – or just simpler. One interesting thing to note is just how many film stars in middle years of the century were hiding foreign or Jewish names, a reflection of the values of the age.

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Frances Gumm became Judy Garland (1922-1969).  She was a seriously famous actress and singer, the child star of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ who was the mother of two well-known singers and actresses, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft. (Author: NBC; Source: here)

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The Marx Brothers: Julius Henry Marx, Leonard Marx, Adolph Marx, Herbert Marx and Milton Marx became Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx and Gummo Marx, sadly the one most people never remember for that is an inspired name. Together they formed one of the greatest and most popular comedy teams of the 1930s. In the photo, they are (from the top): Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo – so Gummo was already missing out. Author: Ralph F. Stitt; Source: here)

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Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff (born 1924) for some reason decided that ‘Doris Day’ was a better name for her. She was one of the finest singers and comedy actresses of the 1940s and 1950s. Her films included ‘Pillow Talk’, ‘The Pajama Game’ and‘Calamity Jane’ while her songs included classics like ‘Secret Love’ and ‘Que será será’, without which football fans would have little to sing at FA Cup matches. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Archibald Leach (1904-1986) is one of the most successful British-born actors of all time. Taking the name Cary Grant might have helped him on  the way. One of the greatest ‘matinee idols’ of films from the thirties to the sixties. Cary Grant was a handsome and witty actor who was voted the second greatest male star of all time – after Humphrey Bogart. And he made a film called ‘Touch of Mink’ with Doris Day. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Marion Morrison (1907-1979) is known to history as John Wayne. The all-American hero of the big screen, he attained iconic status through his many cowboy and war films. A fiercely loyal American who inspired many people – ‘Marion’ was, of course, simply wrong on many levels. (Author: Unknown ; Source: here)

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Isidore Demsky (born 1916) became Issur Danielovitch before settling on the slightly punchier ‘Kirk Douglas’. The owner of the finest dimple ever seen in a chin, Kirk Douglas starred in dozens of films of which ‘Spartacus’ and ‘The Vikings’ are just two marvellous old films that are well worth watching. He is also the father of Michael Douglas. (Author: Cinema Center Films; Source: here)

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Frederick Austerlitz (1899-1987) and Virginia Katherine McMath (1911-1995) became slightly more suave and sophisticated as ‘Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’. They are celebrated as the most famous dancing couple ever seen in films. The plots of their films, like ‘Top Hat’, were pretty thin but the dancing and the dresses were sensational. (Author: Movie Studio ; Source: here)

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Bernard Schwarz (1925-2010) switched to Tony Curtis and so became one of the most famous actors who made it big in Hollywood. Curtis became a popular leading man, playing opposite Marilyn Monroe in the greatest comedy of all-time, ‘Some like it hot’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Anyway, back to Marilyn Monroe. Despite her hopes and good looks, the change of name did not work miracles and her career took several years before it got going. She continued modelling and had small parts in a number of films but, apart from some acclaim for ‘Asphalt Jungle’ and ‘All about Eve’, her career was drifting – until 1953 when she appeared in ‘Niagara’. Her decision to dye her hair blonde back in 1947 finally paid off as it raised her profile and helped her win higher profile roles in hit films like ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’ and ‘How to marry a millionaire’. Fame had well and truly found her – and she was one of the biggest names in Hollywood as well as one of the most followed and imitated. Marilyn Monroe attracted attention and admirers from around the world and it was little surprise when she re-married in 1954. Her first marriage had been one of convenience in 1942 but now Norma Jeane Baker married one of the USA’s most famous men, Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999). It was one of the celebrity marriages of the decade, captivating the country and raising Monroe’s profile even higher as DiMaggio, famous as ‘Joltin’ Joe’ or ‘The Yankee Clipper’ as he was known from his days with the New York Yankees, was one of the greatest players of all time – and he still holds the record for a hitting streak in Major League Baseball – 56 consecutive games in 1941. Sadly, as with all of her relationships, it was to be neither a long nor a happy one.

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Joe DiMaggio – ‘The Yankee Clipper’ – second husband of Marilyn Monroe. (Author: Leslie Jones Collection; Source: here)

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Monroe’s third husband was the famous playwright, Arthur Miller. (Author: US State Department; Source: here)

Monroe’s most famous film was made at the end of the fifties, the Oscar winning comedy, ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959). Directed by the great Billy Wilder, the film also starred Tony Curtis (who was on the list of name changes earlier) and Jack Lemmon (who could have been, as he was originally called ‘John Uhler Lemmon III’). Both Wilder and Curtis were Hungarian-Jews, although Wilder immigrated to the USA while Curtis was born there. The film showed off Monroe’s comic skills at their very best but the film was a tense and difficult one to make. The script, cast and direction were all wonderful – but everyone said they would never work with Monroe again. She was invariably late and almost impossible to work with – although Tony Curtis must have been partly to blame as he did have an affair with her and claimed she became pregnant during the making of the film.

‘Some Like It Hot’ was just one of many great films directed by Billy Wilder (1906-2002). Wilder was Jewish and had been forced to emigrate from Europe to the USA in the 1930s so as to escape the Nazis. His mother and grandmother died in the Death Camp at Auschwitz during the war. Wilder was one of the high-profile figures who supported those actors who came under investigation by the HUAC and Joe McCarthy in the late forties and early fifties for allegedly being Communist supporters; in this he joined Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, John Huston and Groucho Marx, amongst others. So many little links are brought together in people like Billy Wilder. If you have some spare cash, buy a collection of his best films, several of which are in the ‘Best 100’ lists that appear when the critics get together.

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Billy Wilder with the famous actress, Gloria Swanson. (Author: Studio; Source: here)

Returning to Marilyn Monroe, her last completed film was called ‘The Misfits’ (1961) in which she co-starred alongside two great stars, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. It was written by her third husband, Arthur Miller, and it turned out to be Gable’s last film, as he died just after filming ended. People blamed his heavy smoking and also the crash diet he had gone on before making what was to be a physically demanding film. But it seems that stress and tension on the set was to be even more exhausting for Gable as he, and everyone else, had to wait almost every day for Monroe to be ready – echoes of ‘Some Like it Hot only worse’. Over the years, she had developed an extraordinary nervousness and anxiety around performing so that she would often keep people waiting for hours before appearing. While the world saw only beauty, wealth, fame and glamour, Marilyn seemed lost and bewildered, somehow never moving on from her early years of insecurity and rejection; the need for affirmation and acceptance always ran up against feelings of inadequacy so that she increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol as the ways to get her through the days. Fame and wealth did not mean happiness but were more of a mask behind which she experienced crushing loneliness and insecurity.

On 5th August 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead at her home in California. The coroner said it was ‘probably suicide’ but others said it was simply an accidental overdose. Some said it was done by a jealous lover (and there were many to choose from) while others suspected Mafia involvement. Rumours abound about Monroe’s affairs and she has been linked with many men, including Bobby Kennedy and, more especially, President Jack Kennedy, with whom she was supposedly obsessed. Many people believe that Marilyn was murdered by the CIA or the FBI because she ‘knew too much’, although as to exactly what that knowledge was, people are less clear. FBI files released in 2006 apparently claim her death was murder linked with her affair with Bobby Kennedy but that does not mean those files were authentic, especially as the man in charge of the FBI at the time was, of course, J. Edgar Hoover – and it does not make it clear who was supposed to have carried out the killing. This has all led to a barrage of conspiracy theories around the idea that she was killed off on orders from the White House or someone ‘high-up’ for knowing ‘stuff’ or simply to get her out of the way because she was increasingly unstable. In all probability, Monroe’s death was a tragic accident, the confused actions of a beautiful but deeply confused and anxious woman.

Marilyn Monroe lived and died in a way which linked her with many famous, powerful and important people, not least of all, President Jack Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, both of whom she is rumoured to have had affairs with. Within three months of her death, Jack and Bobby would be saving the world from destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis and it’s incredible to think what must have been going on in their private lives when all that was about to kick off. And maybe the saddest part is to remember that Marilyn died aged just 36 while Jack was killed at 46 and Bobby was only 42.

Just as sad and significant in many ways were her relationships with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, both of whom she was married to only briefly. As mentioned above, Joe DiMaggio is one of the greatest of America’s sporting icons (that word again), one of the most famous baseball players of all time. DiMaggio’s particular anger regarding Marilyn was triggered by the famous ‘skirt scene’ in ‘Seven Year Itch’, which he saw as explicit and exploitative. Monroe was a ‘sex symbol’ who sold dreams, a fantasy figure whose life seems to be a bridge between the apparent innocence of the post-war period and the apparent hedonism of the sixties and beyond. DiMaggio himself would live until 1999, dying at the age of 84. He was an All-American legend, forever ‘Joltin’ Joe’ or ‘The Yankee Clipper’ to millions of fans. One of the New York Yankees’ most famous sons, he was mentioned in ‘Mrs. Robinson’ by Simon and Garfunkel, which was used in the soundtrack to ‘The Graduate’ (1967) which starred Dustin Hoffman who went on to play Carl Bernstein in ‘All the President’s Men’, the film about Watergate and Richard Nixon.

Arthur Miller was husband number three, another famous man who wrote plays which defined the era. In the early 1950s, Miller had been under investigation by the HUAC. He saw the power of McCarthyism at work and was horrified by its ability to destroy careers and lives. In response to McCarthy’s tactics he wrote one of the great plays of American theatre, ‘The Crucible’. On the face of it, this was a re-telling of the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692 in Massachusetts, but in reality it was an allegory of life in 1950’s America. It was, and remains, a mighty piece of stage writing and a brilliant attack on how elders and leaders in a society can play on fears to create violence and hatred so as to build more fear. Arthur Miller died in 2005 at the age of 89.

Monroe’s first husband, Jimmy Dougherty, a police officer, died in 2005 (the same year as Miller) at the age of 84 (the same as DiMaggio). When set alongside Jack Kennedy, you have a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a politician who were all involved with a true icon. Monroe was not the first celebrity, nor was she the first famous person to die young. But she was one of the most beautiful, fascinating and vulnerable women of the century, one who epitomised a change in the nature of stardom. Her life and her death in many ways came to mark a change in the whole experience of being a celebrity.

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Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) (Author: Studio; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Films: ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘Seven Year Itch’, ‘Niagara’, ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’, ‘Bus Stop’, How to marry a millionaire’.

You Tube: ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ (1962) is probably the most famous version of the song ever made.

Songs: Marilyn Monroe’s Greatest Hits, ‘Candle in the wind’ by Elton John and ‘Mrs. Robinson’ by Simon and Garfunkel

Photos: far too many to number and most are available on-line

Plays: ‘The Crucible’, ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Arthur Miller (all from ‘Penguin Modern Classics’)

Books: Many books concentrate on photos of Marilyn or present a number of the conspiracy theories about her death. A wide range of these can be found on-line or in most book-shops. As an overview, one of the older books is a good place to start: ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Biography’ by Donald Spotto (Arrow, 1994).

 

 

 

 

FC Start: the USSR fights back in World War II.

FC Start: the USSR fights back in World War II.

‘In front of everyone, both the citizens of Kiev and the German occupants, they could prove what great players they were without being humiliated and without bowing down to anyone.’ Makar Goncharenko, player for FC Start.

History is a complex topic at times. How do you know or trust information if you weren’t there? Let’s face it, most great and important historical events have happened in pretty messy or unclear circumstances. They are open to so many influences that can twist or obscure their meaning, that the issue of interpretation is just about the most complicated thing to consider when ‘doing’ history. It makes things fascinating and controversial as well as ensuring that the debates and arguments about what happened and why they happened will, in many cases, never be decided. This is the case for most of history, in fact, there being so little by way of careful, detached analysis for most events, especially those of the distant past. Pre-historic events, such as why Neanderthals died out, are obviously riddled with challenges around gathering, as well as interpreting, the evidence; ancient events, such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and the Prophets, as recorded in the Old Testament, are full of allegory and clearly have a powerful religious dimension which impacts on their purpose; and deciding why wars, such as the Great War, the Vietnam War or the Cold War, developed as they did will always be affected by who won and who lost. We have to accept that people in the past have not always presented the events of their time, the history of today, in a calm, clear and detached manner. There is nearly always some extra message, a value or a purpose, which impacts on the interpretation of the event, just as there is when two football managers discuss the match they have both just witnessed: ‘It was clearly a penalty’, against, ‘It was never a penalty’, is an obvious case in point.

One area of particular interest in historical events is to do with legends. Such stories are a natural part of the human story and the oldest stories we seem to have, the likes of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’ are just that. There may be a germ of truth in them, maybe quite a lot of truth, but they get changed in the telling so much that they lose any credible connection to the original and are, as such, unbelievable. Such is the case with stories such as King Arthur, Robin Hood or Dracula, where the real person may have existed but the stories that grow up around them come to obscure the truth. History is full of myths and legends that have the power to shape our language, beliefs and actions to this day; one only has to look at the obsessions with the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, UFOs and the regular forecasts of Armageddon linked with some ancient prophecy to see that such stories retain their influence on many people.

Legends develop for various reasons. They can be used to explain an attitude or belief; they can be used to justify an action; they offer links to origins and identities of peoples and nations; they might explain why things have gone wrong in the past and so make demands on today; they can give peace and hope to people who are suffering. Legends are powerful stories and they cannot be ignored by historians nor dismissed just because they are not ‘true’. To do this is to ignore the power and the purpose of the story. It is important that they are recognised as part of a culture and then examined to explain what they say about that culture, the people and the time from which they developed. The fact that they are believed and valued is an essential part of the legend. One only has to look at the many references to Robin Hood in the light of the banking and economic crisis of 2008 to the present day or the power of Dracula to inspire the hugely successful ‘Twilight’ series to see that ‘truth’ is not the only way in which historical events affect and shape our lives today.

The difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction is not just a thing of the deep past. There are many events of more recent times which have been open to great debate with issues about just what happened being very difficult to discern. In some ways, the story behind every trial that comes to court, every politician who rises to power, every act of terror or war, is open to some form of interpretation and opinion. These interpretations are based on selecting the truth, highlighting some things over others, exaggerating the good or ill in the work of certain figures and drawing certain messages and consequences over others. With intelligence, care and determination, things can be agreed and reasonable conclusions drawn – but to be a ‘good’ historian is a most difficult challenge.

One particular event comes to mind as an example of this challenge. It is quite an obscure event in some ways but one which has become far better known in recent years, rooted in a game of football that took place in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1942. The match happened during World War II and inspired a Hungarian film called ‘Két félidő a pokolban’, or, ‘Two Half-Times in Hell’ from 1962. In 1981, this in turn inspired a Hollywood film, ‘Escape to Victory’, which remarkably cast the Rambo actor, Sylvester Stallone, alongside some famous footballers, including Pele and Bobby Moore. As happened with another famous war film, ‘The Great Escape’, the truth got rather twisted and some people came to believe that the film really was a factual account of a true event with Brazilians, English, Scottish, American and Argentine prisoners somehow coming together to defeat a team of German soldiers. Further films have been made about the game, a recent example being a Russian one entitled ‘Match’. It was released just before the European Football Championship of 2012 which was jointly hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. This particular film cuts to the heart of the difficulty of separating the fact from the fiction as it portrayed the Ukrainian players in a very different light from that of ‘Escape to Victory’, for example. Whereas that film had shown the players to be heroes against their opponents, ‘Match’ portrayed the Ukrainians as Nazi sympathisers, which is quite a difference. The truth, it is fair to say, is rather hard to discern, even though this was quite a recent event and many people survived to tell the story well into the 1990s. Moving beyond the legend is incredibly difficult.

Map showing Kiev and Ukraine: here

Here is a version of the story of the now famous ‘Death Match’. It shows that, despite what some people say, sport really can be important and influential for a nation. This version emphasises the positive from the players and the Ukrainian perspective. It shows how a team of local footballers caused great annoyance to the Nazis, who were occupying the Ukraine, by refusing to capitulate to their demands that they should stop being so good. Even though they were malnourished, had little by way of proper kit and had little chance to practise, these players ran rings around the ‘stars’ of their military opponents, humiliating them in the process. As we will see, it would all end in tragedy but why did these men even find themselves playing football against the elite forces of the German army in the depths of the war in Kiev during the summer of 1942?

FC Start was a football team in Kiev, in the Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl where the nuclear disaster of 1986 happened. They played for just one season during World War II and they beat everyone they played: played 9, won 9, 58 goals scored, 10 conceded. Theirs is a story of true heroism and skill but it is still relatively unknown in the West, a story lost in the political mists of time because hearing such positive tales about people who were under Communist control after the war was just not the ‘done’ thing.

The key figure behind FC Start team was a man by the name of Iosif Kordik, who controlled one of the local bakeries, in Kiev, which was the capital city. The Ukraine had been invaded by the Wehrmacht forces, the German Army, as a part of ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Kiev itself was occupied in mid-September, 1941. One day, Kordik bumped into one of his heroes, a footballer called Nikolaï Trusevich. Trusevich had been the goalkeeper for Dynamo Kiev before World War II and, now that he had returned home from a prisoner of war camp, where he had been held after being captured by the Germans, he was in need of a job. Kordik invited him to come to work for him at the imaginatively titled, ‘Bakery No. 3’. The German guards had actually released Trusevich and other Russian soldiers so that they did not have to spend time and resources guarding them; they were released with no papers so that they could not get any work, food or accommodation and were therefore expected to starve or freeze to death. It was a solution which would be cheaper than guarding and feeding them.

Within a short period, several other former footballers had gathered at Bakery No. 3, most of them having played for two rivals before the war: Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev. When the German Wehrmacht, who controlled the region, put together a football league to give themselves, and other soldiers from Hungary and Romania, something to do, the players at the bakery were allowed to enter a team and they took the name ‘FC Start’. Nazi superiority was expected to be shown over their military allies as well as the local population.

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The poster advertising the ‘Death Match’ between FC Start and Flakelf. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The local players were always short of food, tired from working shifts of up to 24 hours and in fear for their lives because of Ukrainian informers to the Nazis. They lacked proper kit, wearing cut down trousers and work shoes instead of boots. They were not allowed to train either, although they were so malnourished that this was not their biggest problem. There were serious doubts in the team about whether they should actually play or not. It took a brief speech by Trusevich to decide the issue. By coincidence, a set of red woollen shirts had been found a few days earlier. Holding one of them, he said to the others, ‘We do not have any weapons but we can fight with our victories on the football pitch…we will play in the colours of our flag. The Fascists should know that this colour can never be defeated.’ They all chose to play.

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Nikolaï Trusevich – Goalkeeper for FC Start in 1942 (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

From their first match, FC Start were the outstanding side in the competition, overcoming their physical problems thanks to great skill, tactics and teamwork. Victory after victory followed but things got tougher when they beat PGS, a German garrison team, 6-0 in July, 1942. This was simply not supposed to happen as it humiliated the German players and the ‘system’ which saw them as superior to the local people. Sport really was supposed to show Aryan supremacy, but, as in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, things were not going to plan. On 6th August, FC Start were to face their toughest challenge against ‘Flakelf’, ‘the Flak Eleven’, a newly formed team from the German Luftwaffe. It included some pilots but more players came from the anti-aircraft groups around Kiev. They won easily, 5-1. But immediately after the match, a return fixture was arranged for the following Sunday, 9th August: it would become the ‘Death Match’.

A large crowd gathered for the match. It began with Flakelf giving the Nazi salute and shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ The Ukrainians had been ordered to do the same by an SS officer who spoke to them before the match in the changing rooms. But as they slowly raised their hands, they put their fists to their chests and gave the cry of the Red Army: ‘Fizcult Hura!’ (literally, ‘Physical Culture, Hooray!’ but better translates as ‘Long live sport!’). Not surprisingly, the Nazis were furious.

The same SS officer who had ordered them to give the Nazi salute was to be the referee for the match. The players had been advised to throw the game for their own safety but as the game started they decided just to play. Chaos broke out soon enough as the referee ignored all fouls by Flakelf even when the FC Start goalkeeper, the famous Trusevich, was deliberately kicked in the head. Flakelf took the lead while he was still dazed. But FC Start would not give in and they struck back, scoring with a long shot before another player, Makar Goncharenko, dribbled around the whole Flakelf team to score a stunning goal, even as they tried to grab him and kick him from behind. A third goal before half-time saw FC Start in control of the match. The Nazis were, to say the least, unhappy.

During half-time, the SS officer and a Ukrainian collaborator returned to the changing rooms to both warn and threaten the players that they could not, and must not, win the game. Serious consequences were threatened if they did win. However, in the second half, things were much quieter and both sides scored twice, leaving FC Start 5-3 up. Then, towards the end of the game, one of the Start team, a defender called Klimenko, dribbled around the whole of the Flakelf defence, went round the goalkeeper up to the goal-line but refused to score and, instead, he turned to kick the ball back towards the half-way line. It was the ultimate humiliation of the German team as this ‘sub-human’ Ukrainian could choose not to score against them – and still win. The whistle was blown early to save Flakelf further embarrassment. The FC Start players did not celebrate but guard dogs were turned on to the crowd of supporters. The Nazi leaders in the crowd were jeered as they left the ground. Hungarians and Romanians with the army had been seen supporting FC Start and mocking the Germans. Something had to be done.

The local Nazi leaders decided what to do but waited until FC Start had played and won their final match, 8-0, to win the league. They then turned up at Bakery No. 3 and rounded up all of the players. They were taken to the SS headquarters and interrogated in the hope that they would admit to being involved in activities against the Germans but none did so. One of the team, though, Korotkykh, was exposed as a member of the NKVD, Stalin’s Secret Police, when his sister told the SS: he was tortured and killed. As the others refused to break, they were sent off to labour camps where several of them died by being clubbed to death and then shot through the head. Three of those who died were executed as retribution for a partisan attack on a local factory. One in three of those held at the Siretz Camp were executed and they included the heart of the FC Start team: Ivan Kuzmenko, their giant striker; Alexi Klimenko, the young defender who had dribbled around the Flakelf team before refusing to score; and Nikolai Trusevich, the great goalkeeper and the man who brought the team together after going to work at Bakery No. 3. Some of the team did survive the war but then faced the backlash of those who saw them as collaborators for playing football with the enemy. Worst was the threat posed by Joseph Stalin who sent so many former prisoners of war and civilians who had contact with the Nazis to the Gulags or death after 1945.

The full story of FC Start was suppressed for many years and only came out in 1959, long after Stalin’s death, and it is really down to two Soviet leaders that it happened. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, who was himself a Ukrainian, were instrumental in seeing that the remarkable story of FC Start found a wider audience. It was a part of ‘peaceful coexistence’ really, an example of heroism and human endurance, as well as skill, in the face of fear and hatred. For Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the witness of FC Start was an example of anti-Nazism from within Communism, a sign to the world of the strength of their system and way of life.

Today, a monument stands to the players of FC Start outside Dinamo Kiev’s ground. Makar Goncharenko, was the last member living of FC Start. He died in 1996, but four years earlier, he spoke of the team and the ‘Death Match’. He did not see any of the team as heroes, not even those who died. For him, they were just ordinary people caught up in a brutal war, a war that saw that saw the population of Kiev fall from 400 000 to 80 000. The men who played for FC Start were no different from the rest of the community; thanks to their sporting ability, they just played a different role in the struggle.

Monuments to FC Start at the Kiev stadium: photo links here and here. These are clearly evidence that some people thought something important had happened at FC Start. And there is another important memorial, see below, linked with the ‘Death Match’. It is at Syrets Concentration Camp, where three of the players were amongst the estimated 25 000 who died. The camp was close to the infamous massacre site at Babi Yar.

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(Author: Jennifer Boyer; Source: here)

So, that is the positive interpretation of the story and it is one which is powerful and emotional, a classic example of the ‘David and Goliath’ struggle. The heroes are clear, the monuments are built, the memory is enshrined in the stories and the films. But it is not quite so straight-forward and many believe that a different interpretation is necessary. Part of the problem is to do with confusion over what actually happened in 1942 and part is to do with Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the leaders of the USSR, and how the story came out.

There seems to be no doubt that the football season of 1942 did take place, including the teams mentioned, such as Flakelf and FC Start. The result in the ‘Death Match’ was almost certainly a 5-3 victory for FC Start and, within six months, half of the team had died. But then things get messy. How come the local officials of the Nazi occupiers never checked the papers of the FC Start players? They would easily have found out that they had none. Many local people were accused of being collaborators with the Nazis and some believe that the team must have included such people, as portrayed in the Russian film ‘Match’. And were the deaths that followed the game directly a result of the football or just a part of the huge suffering of the Ukrainians in the war? It is estimated that eight-ten million Ukrainians died during World War II, a higher percentage than any other nation, despite evidence of collaboration with the Nazis by some people; in such horrible circumstances, such things were, surely, to be expected. Starvation was the biggest cause of death, a further horrid famine that stands alongside the tragedy of 1933, ‘The Terror-Famine’, when up to seven million more people, mostly Ukrainians, died thanks to the consequences of Stalin’s first ‘Five Year Plan’. Clearly, the fact that four or five players died within six months of the match is no surprise; they may not have been shot.

The suffering of the people and the obvious expectation of collaboration, as in France, for example, was a particular problem when the tide of the war turned against the Nazis. Following that great turning-point, the Battle of Stalingrad, the German forces were decisively pushed back and forced out of the USSR. In the wake of this, Joseph Stalin was ruthless in his pursuit of anyone who might have been seen to have collaborated with the Nazis in any way. After the war, he famously sent Soviet Prisoners of War, who had been imprisoned in the west, straight out to gulags in Siberia for fear that they had been intellectually ‘contaminated’ by the experience. The Ukrainians feared that they would be part of the back-lash and the story of the ‘Death Match’ was covered up until after Stalin’s own death in 1953. If there was a clear story of anti-Nazi activity, surely it would have been used to impress Stalin? The story only came out under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, presented as a story of how good the Communists had been in opposing the Nazis during the war. It is all a bit too convenient for some people.

The truth is that many people do not believe the story of the ‘Death Match’ as told above. They say that those who survived and re-told the story, such as Makar Goncharenko, changed their version of events many times, almost in every re-telling. Also, there were discrepancies between different players and a lack of consistency with any surviving spectators from the estimated 2000 who attended. Marina Shevchenko, a local historian who works at the local museum of the Great Patriotic War, believes that the match between FC Start and Flakelf did take place on 9th August, 1942, and the score probably was 5-3 to FC Start – but it was not a ‘Death Match’.

The story is the stuff of legend, a spin placed upon an event played out under the most frightening circumstances – and formed into a legend to protect and justify people who then faced another bout of horror from their own rulers. It was given added energy by other politicians who wished to cast a positive light on Communists during the Cold War and that was then muddied further by Hollywood. A further twist is given by the ‘celebrity’ enjoyed by certain key players in the match who could hardly do more than re-tell the story everyone wanted to hear, the truth having long been submerged in the myth of patriotic glory. And the Russian version of events in ‘Match’ from 2012, also adds in that element which comes from a historic dislike and distrust between nations.

The Death Match. The stuff of legend. Just like Robin Hood, really?

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

Berlin, Olympia-Stadion (Luftaufnahme)

The Olimpiastadion, Berlin, 1936 – a place where important things happened. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

“Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.” Jesse Owens

The Olympics in the modern era were the result of the vision and hard work of a French noble called Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937). He was at least partly inspired by the popular games which had been taking place in the small English village of Much Wenlock in Shropshire since 1850. This gathering, which is still held each year, aimed, “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”, an ideal which the Baron wanted to share on a far grander scale.

Baron de Coubertin was a regular visitor to Much Wenlock and he was much inspired by what he saw. After several years of planning, athletes gathered in Athens in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games, the city being chosen, of course, because of the ancient games which had been held at Olympia from 776 BC to 393 BC. At those original games, winners received nothing more than a wreath of olive leaves, women were banned from competing and glory was all. There is no space here for a full history of the Olympics but some brief observations on a few key moments in recent history will hopefully show how fascinating and important the games have been in political as well as sporting terms.

The Baron himself: Pierre de Coubertin. He actually won a gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 – for poetry. They really did have a range of competitions in those days and he would probably have had a chance if they had held a bushy moustache competition.

(Author: Photograph from Bain News Service; Source: From the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division digital ID cph.3c22269)

1936 – BERLIN OLYMPICS

An obvious starting point for a discussion of politics in the Olympics is Berlin, 1936. For anyone visiting the city, the stadium there should be on the agenda: a Nazi building of beauty and importance, and the venue for one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time. The hero who dominated the Berlin Olympics of 1936 was an all-time great, namely the Black American star, Jesse Owens (1913-80). Owens’ life is a story which is truly worth knowing, not just for the fact that he won four gold medals in 1936, setting a record for athletics at one Olympics which was not matched until Carl Lewis at Los Angeles in 1984. (Some of you will mention Mark Spitz, who won seven golds in swimming at Munich in 1972 and Michael Phelps who went even further to win eight golds at Beijing in 2008, again in the pool. But four athletics golds is still a record for one Olympic Games). Owens’ achievements were remarkable in themselves but they have always had an extra dimension because of the context in which they happened. The place, the times, the opponents and the spectators all contributed to the glory of what he did.

Owens was a black athlete at a time when segregation was rife in the USA. Racism was the norm during much of his life at home but, by competing in Germany when the Nazis were in control, he faced one of the most racist systems in history. When he went to Berlin, Owens was already a legend of track and field having broken three world records and equalled a fourth, all within 45 minutes at a meeting in the state of Michigan, one afternoon in 1935. He was outstanding at the long jump and at sprinting, where he competed at 100m, 200m and in relays. However, at the time when his world records were set, he could not even get a scholarship because of his skin colour, having to work in part-time jobs to fund his athletics; many lesser athletes found such scholarships easy to come by.

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.

(Author: Unknown; Source: derivative work by Durova of Image:Jesse_Owens.jpg – reproduction of photograph in “Die Olympischen Spiele, 1936″ p.27, 1936.)

In 1936, Adolf Hitler was looking for a major propaganda victory at the Berlin Olympics. For the Nazis, the Olympics were a wonderful opportunity to show the world the glories of their system. Berlin had been awarded the games before Hitler came to power and he wanted to take every advantage he could from this opportunity. With the world in economic depression following the Great Crash of 1929, Germany would put on a show that would show it was stronger and more dynamic than any country in the world. It was to be not only a glorious event, but it would also show the superiority of the Aryan race as blond-haired, blue-eyed athletes from Germany were expected to dominate the Games. Indeed, Germany did finish top of the medals table, but they had far more athletes than anyone else and they had been supported in training to an extent no other team could match.

The Berlin Olympics saw several innovations, such as electronic timing, the Olympic Torch and the filming of the games. The film was made by one of the most important, famous and controversial film makers of all time, Leni Riefenstahl (pictured above during filming). She produced ‘Olympia’ using some dramatic new techniques of filming, creating a record of the games which is well worth watching today – as is her most famous film, the horrible and extraordinary ‘Triumph of the Will’.

(Author: Unknown, August, 1936; Source: German Federal Archives)

Hitler thoroughly expected success in the high-profile events, such as the 100 metres sprint, and this is where Jesse Owens achieved his greatest fame, winning gold in 103 seconds, an Olympic record – and remember there were no starting blocks and the track was ash. Hitler is alleged to have refused to meet Owens after he won the 100 metres and his other events but this is pretty much a myth. What is true is that Hitler had upset Olympic officials early on in the games by greeting only the German gold medallists. They told him to meet all or none in future and he settled for not meeting any, which included Owens. But there is no doubt that Hitler was appalled by Owens’ victories, at least according to his famous architect and confidante, Albert Speer.

Jesse Owens won gold medals in the 100m, 200m and the 100m relay, but it was in the long jump that sportsmanship really stood out. Owens was warming up before the heats and took a practise jump. Without warning, the officials classed this as his first jump. Furious and distracted, Owens fouled on his second jump and faced the prospect of elimination if he failed with his third jump. At this point, one of his German opponents, Carl ‘Luz’ Long, spoke to him and gave him some advice, telling him how good he was and that he could easily jump from well behind the board and still qualify. Owens took the advice, qualified and went on to win gold – leaving Long with the silver medal. Long was delighted and apparently very proud that he had helped Owens win through.

The photo below shows Luz Long and Jesse Owens at the Olympics. Long had actually approached Owens on their first day in the Berlin stadium. With Hitler and 100 000 spectators watching, Long shook Owens’ hand and chatted with him, a public display that went against the Nazi propaganda as they looked down on Owens as an ‘inferior’ person. Owens treasured their friendship, as the letter below shows.

Jesse Owens and Luz Long during the long-jump medal ceremony, 1936.

(Author: Unknown; Source: The original can be viewed here)

He wrote it to Owens in 1942, just after the United States declared war on Germany:

My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you. When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when war did not separate us and tell him that things can be different between men in this world.

“Your brother, Luz.”

Luz Long died on July 13, 1943. He had been wounded in action, fighting for the German Army, and was treated at a British field hospital. He was only 30 and was buried in a war cemetery in Sicily. In 1951, Jesse Owens kept his promise and found Long’s son in Germany. He said that the thing he valued most from his Olympic experience was his friendship with Luz Long, more so even than the medals and fame he won.

Remarkably, rather than being able to return to the USA as a great hero, Owens suffered at the hands of the American establishment. He received no recognition from President Roosevelt, a major negative point against one of America’s most famous Presidents. Nor did his successor, Harry Truman, acknowledge Owens’ achievements in any way. On his way home from the Games, Owens took some paid employment as a way of funding his expenses for the Olympics. Avery Brundage, the head of the US delegation, made sure Owens was stripped of his amateur status for doing some advertising, and so his career was brought to an end just as he faced a period of greatness. Brundage was a seriously important, and most unpleasant, man in Olympic history and he comes up again later in this section. Ruined by his loss of amateur status, Owens was reduced to racing against horses as a gimmick to make a living, a tragic development in the life of a truly great athlete.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the story was that, straight after being greeted as a hero on the streets of Nazi Berlin after the Olympics, Jesse Owens returned to the USA to suffer continued racism. In New York, a reception was held in honour of the Olympic athletes at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Jesse Owens, the greatest champion of the Berlin Olympic Games, had to go upstairs in the lift used by the waiters because the lifts were segregated and the public lifts were for ‘whites only’. Nazi Germany was evil but the American system was hardly a beacon of justice and integrity.

Since Owens died in 1980, there has been some evidence to suggest that the above story is not entirely true. One American commentator, Grantland Rice, said he watched Owens through binoculars during the entire qualifying for the long jump competition. At no point did Owens have any contact with Long, according to Rice, making it impossible for Long to have given the famous advice. And in an article published in his local newspaper, a week after the long jump final, Long spoke of his joy and excitement at seeing Hitler applauding his fifth round jump which tied Owens at 7.67 metres. This is presented as evidence that Long was a loyal Nazi who was positive about Hitler, although one has to ask what else he was supposed to say in an age when devotion to Hitler was so widespread and so ‘expected’. In 1965, it was said that Owens admitted to ‘enhancing’ the story of his friendship with Long because it was what the people wanted to hear. In history, as in life, these difficulties over interpretation and truth often exist. Maybe the friendship and duel between Jesse Owens and Luz Long was not quite like the story that has been passed down over the decades. But so powerful is that story, that it is hard to see its power ever being diluted. The photos of them lying on the grass in the Olympic Stadium the evidence of Long running to hug and congratulate Owens after his final jump and the last letter Long wrote before his death in 1943 – they all stand as testimony to a remarkable friendship.

1956 – MELBOURNE OLYMPICS

The Melbourne Games were the first Olympics to be held after the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made his ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956. This speech, which is covered in more detail in the section on Khrushchev himself, had criticised Joseph Stalin, the hard-line Communist ruler of the USSR who had died in 1953. Khrushchev’s speech had sent shock waves around the world as it seemed to promise greater freedom and opportunity for those who lived in the Communist world behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. The Melbourne Olympics were, of course, in Australia and were, therefore, the first Games to be held in the southern hemisphere. They were not held in July-August but were moved to November-December, which meant they came just after the Hungarian Uprising (see Chapter 22) had been put down by troops of the Red Army and the Warsaw Pact. There had been huge loss of life and many people in Hungary had been deeply shaken by what had happened. The surprising scene for a symbolic Hungarian revenge would be the swimming pool in Melbourne, and, more specifically, the Olympic water polo tournament.

Hungary has a great tradition in swimming, having many outdoor pools and producing some fine swimmers over the years. The country has always been very strong in water polo, too, and. Hungary’s team made it to the semi-finals in Melbourne where there they had to face the team from the Soviet Union. Although the Hungarians actually had a stronger team, the Soviets considered themselves favourites, being from a much bigger country, and almost expected the Hungarians to collapse, respecting their superiority and power in the political world. Nothing could have been further from the truth and the match became the stuff of legend. The Hungarians won 4-0 but it is remembered not so much for its outcome as for the violence of the game and the blood that stained the pool by the end. One of the Hungarians, Ervin Zádor (1935-2012), left the pool with blood streaming from a cut eye after being punched by one of the USSR team. It became known as the ‘Blood in the water’ match and it was an iconic moment in sport, a great example of ‘David against Goliath’.

Ervin Zádor: Photo link

The Hungarians went on to beat the Yugoslav team 2-1 in the final and so win their fourth Water Polo Gold Medal. But the glory of victory could never make up for the horrors of the suffering in the Hungarian Uprising.

THE MEDALS TABLES AND DRUGS: 1948-1988

The Cold War officially saw no direct fighting between US and Soviet forces but tension and conflict was everywhere as each side aimed for superiority. In a dramatic move in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had promised a change in Communism’s approach to the West. Under ‘peaceful coexistence’, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised that the USSR would crush the USA by non-violent competition rather than by force. One example of this was to be the rise of athletics under Communism. By defeating Western athletes, the Communist system in the USSR and Eastern Europe would show itself to be a better way of life. ‘Better’ meant superior in attitude, tactics, diet and the like. In reality, it’s fair to say that a lot of it would also be down to professionalism and drugs. In the days before serious drug testing, almost anything could be used by athletes and, in this period, almost anything was. The most dramatic examples were seen in the power events for women where records set in the 1970s are well beyond anything achieved today. It was mainly down to huge injections of testosterone. It reached such levels in some women that they developed stubble and some have since had sex changes to become men. These athletes often suffered enormous horrors in the name of ‘peaceful coexistence’.

The Olympics became the focus of much attention and competition for the Superpowers from the 1950s onwards,. Whereas the Games had been dominated by the older Western powers and the host nations before World War II, the Superpowers came to prominence in the post-war period. The Medals tables shows this quite clearly:

Date and host city First (Gold medals) Second (Gold medals) Third (Gold medals)
1948 – London USA – 38 Sweden – 16 France – 10
1952 – Helsinki USA  – 40 USSR – 22 Hungary- 16
1956 – Melbourne USSR – 37 USA – 32 Australia – 13
1960 – Rome USSR – 43 USA – 34 Italy – 13
1964 – Tokyo USA – 36 USSR – 30 Japan – 16
1968 – Mexico USA – 45 USSR – 29 Japan – 11
1972 – Munich USSR – 50 USA – 33 East Germany – 20
1976 – Montreal USSR – 49 East Germany – 40 USA – 34
1980 – Moscow USSR – 80 East Germany – 47 Bulgaria – 8
1984 – Los Angeles USA – 83 Romania – 20 West Germany – 17
1988 – Seoul USSR – 55 East Germany – 37 USA – 36

 

There is so much to understand about the Olympics that they are a series of books on their own. But here it is worth noting just a few things.

Firstly, the medals table was won by either the USA or the USSR every time between 1948 and 2004. China broke that domination in 2008 and 2012. This is partly due to the fact that the USA and the USSR were large countries in terms of population and wealth but it really bears testimony to the fact that the Olympics became an event of great significance for both countries as the Cold War developed. For the USSR, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev in particular, sporting success was a way of showing the power of the nation and the Communist way of life. They could not really compete with the West in areas which demanded high levels of technology or established skills, such as motor racing, horse racing or golf, but they could develop in athletics, gymnastics and swimming. And, of course, the USA had to respond as leader of the ‘free world’ and the richest nation on earth.

Secondly, look at the rise of East Germany. With a population of only 18-20 million, just a third of the size of West Germany and with far less economic power, it came third in the world in 1972 and then second in 1976, 1980 and 1988. This represents extraordinary progress – with some serious drug abuse and an aggressive selection and training policy behind it.

Thirdly, there were a number of bans and boycotts which affected most of the Olympics between 1948 and 1984. Most of these were to do with the broader political situations of the time. Germany and Japan were banned from London in 1948 while the USSR refused to send a team. In 1956, the Melbourne Games saw seven teams absent because of the Suez Crisis (Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq), the Hungarian Revolution (Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands) and the situation in Taiwan/Formosa (the People’s Republic of China). In 1964, South Africa was banned because of its laws on apartheid, a ban which would last until 1992, while North Korea and Indonesia withdrew because of a dispute with the IOC. Munich in 1972 saw the absence of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the face of a threatened ban by African countries, as the country was led by a white-minority after it had declared independence from the UK. At Montreal in 1976, twenty-two African countries refused to compete, in protest at New Zealand playing South Africa at Rugby Union, while the People’s Republic of China continued its boycott over Taiwan. In 1980, the US team and many other Western countries abstained in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Next, the USSR and fourteen of its allies amongst the Communist countries boycotted the 1984 games in protest at the USA’s boycott of 1980 – and that led to Romania coming second as it was far stronger than most Western countries despite being relatively small. And, finally, North Korea surprised no one when they boycotted the Seoul Games of 1988 in a general protest against South Korea. In 1992, there was no formal boycott of the Olympic Games for the first time since Rome in 1960.

Lastly, a point about world records, especiall