From our van­tage point, the 1956 Mel­bourne Olympics glow with Golden Age nostal­gia: Betty Cuth­bert, am­a­teur ideals, the “friendly” Games and all that. But much as we like to talk about our po­lit­i­cal age as po­larised, the back­drop of Mel­bourne ’56 puts the anx­i­eties of our con­tem­po­rary Olympic build-ups (will the traf­fic be bad?) to shame.

It was the mid-1950s, af­ter all, and the Cold War was in one of its most in­tense pas­sages. The 1952 Games in Helsinki is re­garded as the nexus of the Olympics and the Cold War – a sta­tus de­rived from be­ing the first where the Soviet Union and the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of China com­peted – but Mel­bourne would also be sub­ject to the in­trigues of east ver­sus west.

Those who know the wider his­tory of the pe­riod will un­der­stand the cen­tral place of Hun­gary to the story. The na­tion had risen up against its com­mu­nist regime a month be­fore the start of the Games, pro­vok­ing a bru­tal re­sponse from the Soviet Red Army. This pro­duced one of most po­lit­i­cal episodes in Olympic his­tory, and ar­guably the sin­gle event that Mel­bourne will be re­mem­bered for, the “Blood in the Wa­ter” wa­ter polo match be­tween the Hun­gar­i­ans and the Rus­sians.

This book goes beyond that match to look at the reper­cus­sions for Hun­gary’s Olympic team through­out the Games, as well as other po­lit­i­cal cur­rents, in­clud­ing the ro­mance across the di­vide of Cze­choslo­vakian Olga Fiko­tova and Amer­i­can Hal Con­nolly. Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing tale was the ef­forts of Aus­tralia’s spy agency, ASIO, to keep a lid on the Cold War’s games dis­rupt­ing the main Games.

Draw­ing on de­clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion from various sources, the book tells of Op­er­a­tion Grif­fin, an Amer­i­can plan to help Hun­gar­ian ath­letes de­fect. This was not a CIA plan – ASIO had con­vinced them to stay away – but one cooked up with the in­volve­ment of Time-Life boss Henry Luce. Cu­ri­ously, if the Sovi­ets had known their Aus­tralian foot­ball, they could’ve cracked this scheme – the coded mes­sages go­ing from Aus­tralia to the US talked of an Aussie rules team go­ing on Amer­i­can tour, only that the team was from NSW, with names that didn’t match any player in the league.

GOODFOR: Spy-novel buffs with a sport­ing tinge.

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