An adjunct professor in global studies at RMIT, Harry Blutstein delves into the espionage going on in the background of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in his book Cold War Games. (Interview edited for length and clarity).
It’s pretty irresistible – sports and spies. How did you come to this book?
A friend of mine had interviewed the head of security for the ’56 Games, and he told these incredible stories of the CIA and KGB. By the time she had come to me, this guy had died, but she had taped the interviews. But nowhere did he give details.
That was the starting point. Then there was the official history of ASIO, which had a section on the Hungarians, and it quoted there were 46 KGB agents. The real breakthrough was coming across the papers of a guy named CD Jackson, who was the Cold War adviser for Eisenhower. He was an intriguing character in that he moved seamlessly between government, state department, CIA and the private sector. If anything done was really imaginative, it was CD Jackson – he had a novelist’s flair for coming up with clever ideas. In his papers were these telegrams ...
Perhaps the best story in the book, the telegrams about the operation to give the Hungarians sanctuary in the US. The telegrams referred to them as “Australian footballers from NSW” – if the KGB had known their Aussie sport, they would’ve figured it out.
That’s exactly right. One of the fascinating things is, the KGB and ASIO had the same objec- tives, which is really ironic. They both wanted to stop defections, and CD Jackson wanted to create them. He stepped in because the CIA was banned from coming to Melbourne.
We tend to view the 1956 Olympics through the lens of golden-age nostalgia, something we were reminded of with the recent passing of Betty Cuthbert. Was one of the intentions of the book to restore some of the proper historical context?
There’s one book in English dedicated to the Melbourne Olympics more generally – not just the sport – written by Bruce Howard. I came across four books in Russian, about the same number in German, seven in Hungarian, one in Czech. So the only people who didn’t realise the significance of the Melbourne Olympics was Melbourne’s. Yet when you think about it, all these things that went on in the rest of the Olympic Games up until the fall of the Soviet empire: the first boycotts, political demonstrations, defections, they all happened here first.
One of the things I often say is: if you want to be forgotten by history, call yourself “The Friendly Games”. We’ve heard about the Nazi Games, about Munich, but the Melbourne Games were one of the most important in Olympic history. And we don’t recognise it.
Going beyond our parochial point of view, is it fair to say that Hungary was the most significant story of the ’56 Games? We remember the water polo, Blood in the Water and so forth, but it was more than that?
The athletes arrived traumatised – some of them had participated in the revolution, they didn’t know what had happened to their families. They were angry, they felt guilty they had left Hungary at a time of need; they left when the revolution looked like it had won. What was said to them was: “Go to Melbourne because you will be the first people to represent free Hungary to the world.”
Can I give you something that’s not in the book? In 1954, Melbourne was totally unprepared for the Games. The IOC seriously considered pulling out, and went to a city that had bid for 1960, but had been knocked back. But it was ready, had a stadium the size of the MCG, Olympic-style pools galore and was mad-keen on sport equal to Australia – Budapest. Had the Olympics been there, it would have been earlier, in September. Would there have been a revolution? Almost definitely not. So Melbourne’s incompetence almost stopped Hungary’s revolution.
Our standard last question: favourite sport books?
I love the American sportswriters of the 1950s – it was so vital and alive, that would be the closest to, if I could write that well, I’d love to. Red Smith, who as well as writing wonderfully dynamic prose on just about any sport, was in Melbourne for the Olympic Games. The Australian writer I love is Martin Flanagan;
Southern Sky, Western Oval isrefreshingly different from most books on footy. I understand he is writing another book on the Doggies devoted to their premiership year, which I’m very much looking forward to reading.