COLD WAR GAMES
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.