Inside Sport - - INSIDER - – Jeff Cen­ten­era

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 isžre­fresh­ingly 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.ž

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