December 16th 2017


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COVER STORY The meaning of Christmas

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MUSIC Sounds like ...: A vain search for meaning

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BOOK REVIEW Australia behind the scenes in WWII

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Political sparks at the 'Friendly' Games




News Weekly, December 16, 2017

COLD WAR GAMES:
Espionage, Spies and Secret Operations
at the 1956 Olympic Games

by Harry Blutstein

Bonnier, Richmond
Paperback: 336 pages
Price: AUD$32.99

Reviewed by Bill James

There was only one defection at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. An athlete from Cameroon stayed on in China after the Games, decided he didn’t like it, and returned to Africa.

By way of contrast, over the years many competitors from communist countries have used the Olympics as an opportunity to escape to the West. And many others would have liked to; North Korea’s desperate policy, for example, is to assign one minder to every single member of its teams.

Blutstein sets the Melbourne Olympics in the context of the Cold War, and describes not only defections, but also other ways in which the athletic and ideological rivalry of the two superpowers overlapped in 1956.

The signature event of the Games, however, did not involve the USSR versus the United States, but the Soviet Union versus Hungary.

Their “blood in the water” water polo match on December 6, which Hungary won 4-0, produced an iconic photograph of a Hungarian player emerging from the pool with blood pouring from his forehead where a Russian player had punched him.

A month before, Soviet forces had invaded Hungary following demonstrations which toppled a statue of Stalin, and demanded liberalisation and national independence. The Soviets killed thousands of Hungarians, while hundreds of thousands of others took the opportunity to flee to the free world.

Once in Melbourne, Hungarian athletes insisted on competing under the flag adopted by the revolutionaries back in Budapest, rather than the communist version. They were not only angry, but concerned about their families, and uncertain as to whether they should return home after the Games now that a Soviet puppet regime was using the AVO security police to terrorise the population.

Cold War tensions had already been evident in the run-up to the Games, well before the emblematic water polo match. Communist China and North Korea decided to boycott them because of the Taiwanese and South Korean teams’ presence in Melbourne. Holland, Switzerland and Spain pulled out over Russia’s treatment of Hungary. Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon refused to participate in order to demonstrate their unhappiness over Israel’s invasion of the Sinai and occupation of the Suez Canal.

The USSR was competing for only the second time at the Melbourne Games.

Stalin had originally been uninterested in sport, and concerned that any Soviet lack of international sporting success might reflect badly on communism, but he had been encouraged by the exploits of Moscow’s Dynamo football team, which toured Great Britain in 1945.

Although the USSR boycotted the 1948 Olympics because “the Games were being run by capitalists who were intent on depriving workers of their right to fair competition”, it did compete in 1952 at Helsinki.

“The fear of losing dominated Soviet sport … if [athletes] failed to win international competitions they might face dire consequences to their careers, and perhaps even a trip to the Gulag.”

As a consequence of this ruthless policy, the USSR’s participation in Finland was marked by controversial features, such as widespread suspicion about its team members’ highly dubious amateur status, and their accommodation in a separate compound surrounded by barbed wire, and policed by the KGB to prevent defections.

Given that it was their first Olympics, the Soviets performed well. However, they still finished second overall to the United States, and were beaten at football by Yugoslavia, whose dictator, Tito, was at the time defying Stalin’s assumed leadership of the communist world.

Concerns about the Soviet competitors’ amateur status re-emerged before the 1956 Games, with stories of athletes holding nominal positions as officers in the armed services, or as engineers in various industries, while spending their whole time training. American criticism of this alleged hypocrisy was compromised by the fact that the U.S. also had a number of athletes who received support from colleges and the military.

The U.S. also experienced the embarrassment of putting together a Sport in Art exhibition (art competitions or festivals had traditionally accompanied the Olympics) that was meant to win hearts and minds but that had to be cancelled after an uproar over the inclusion in the display of pictures by four supposedly communist painters.

Blutstein is telling a story rather than presenting a report, so his account of the Games zeroes in on their personal and national aspects. He compares, for example, the two “heroes” of the Games, American sprinter Bobby Morrow (gold in the 100 and 200 metres, and the 400 metres relay) and Russian distance runner Vladimir Kuts (gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres).

Kuts not only outshone the shy Morrow with his showmanship, but “was fortunate to have excelled in long-distance races … those watching could not help but be astonished by his tactical genius, indomitable spirit and physical power”.

In the short term, Kuts received much more in terms of adulation, medals, money and houses from his appreciative government, than Morrow ever received from the U.S. In the long term, however, both men failed in careers and relationships, finishing up unhappy and unknown.

The big love story across the ideological divide involved two gold medallists, American hammer thrower Harold “Hal” Connolly, and Czechoslovak discus thrower Olga Fikotova. Giving Fikotova’s secret police (StB) minder the slip, they managed outings together to movies, shops and the zoo, and became unofficially engaged.

After the Games, the StB managed to force Fikotova back to Czechoslovakia, where Connolly visited her with the help of Americans who could see the propaganda value of supporting the romance. As a result of global media pressure, the Czech authorities finally permitted the marriage (in a Prague registry office, a Catholic church, and a Protestant church, all in one day!), and the couple settled in the US.

“The Czechoslovak government never forgave Olga. When she approached the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee and offered to compete for her country in the Rome Olympics, they rejected her offer.”

At the national level, the big Cold War story was Germany. East Germany wanted to participate independently, but the IOC gave it the option of either competing in a combined team with West Germany, or not competing at all. A compromise was reached whereby Beethoven’s Ode To Joy would serve as the national anthem for both countries, and both teams would march together, with a West German carrying the flag in the opening ceremony, and an East German in the closing ceremony (at the time, both Germanys had the same flag). The teams stayed in separate dormitories, with the Stasi patrolling the East Germans.

Christa Stubnick became the first East German to win an Olympic medal (silver in the 100 and 200 metres, beaten in each by Australian Betty Cuthbert), while East German bantamweight boxer Wolfgang Behrendt won gold.

West Germany won more medals than East Germany, but East Germany had embarked on the process which led, for better or worse, to its being represented by a separate Olympic team in 1968.

For the USSR’s leadership, the most important sport being contested at the Games was football, “one sport that was popular around the world … a loss would be noticed, particularly in developing countries that the Soviet Union was trying to win over to its side in the Cold War”.

Blutstein notes further that at home football “helped deaden the senses to the deprivations of daily life and was one of the few joys of Soviet citizens as they patiently bided their time for the socialist utopia to arrive”.

With relations between the USSR and Tito’s Yugoslavia little improved since Stalin’s death in 1953, the final saw a repeat of their 1952 clash, which this time the Soviet team managed to win. In fact, the USSR finished as top team overall at the Games. The Americans tried to make this fact more palatable by arguing that the Soviet athletes were not amateurs; that the judges had been biased in their favour; and that they had picked up a disproportionate number of medals in “fringe” events such as shooting, wrestling and hockey.

So much for the actual contests, but, as Blutstein says, there “were two sets of games played in Melbourne in 1956. One was played on the fields, in swimming pools and sporting arenas.” The other (to borrow from Mad magazine’s venerable strip) was Spy vs Spy, consisting of ASIO versus the KGB.

At a less official level, anti-communist émigré groups tried to encourage members of communist teams to defect, while the Communist Party of Australia laid on fraternal entertainment for them.

Security services operatives from Iron Curtain countries who accompanied teams, were more interested in preventing defections than carrying out espionage. But the Australian government was taking no chances. For example, recent high-profile defector Vladimir Petrov was roped in to help ASIO by identifying KGB officials accompanying the Russian team. He turned out to be more trouble than he was worth, causing a minor scandal by getting charged during the Games with being drunk and disorderly after gatecrashing a party.

ASIO was prepared to help those defectors who presented them with a fait accompli, but its Director-General, Charles Spry, and Prime Minister Robert Menzies, hoped to discourage defections until the Olympics were over, to avoid tarnishing the Games’ “friendly” image.

This presented a problem to the many Iron Curtain competitors who thought about seizing the opportunity to escape to the West. “The government’s decision not to entertain applications for asylum until the Games were over was cruel, as athletes who stayed behind could not be sure whether or not their application would be accepted.”

In the end, 61 athletes, officials and journalists from the Russian-subjugated communist world sought asylum. It was, after all, only 11 years since the end of World War II, and many Eastern Europeans had personal memories of the “women and girls [who] were raped by the advancing Red Army”, including “sisters and mothers”.

The list of asylum-seekers does not include Nina Paranyuk, a stewardess from the passenger ship Gruzia, which transported the Soviet team, and the only person from the USSR who remained in Australia. After slipping way from a sightseeing excursion, she miraculously made contact with Melbourne’s Ukrainian migrant community, which hid her until the Games were over.

Finally, what happened to the Hungarian Olympic athletes in this tragic and momentous year for them and for their country? Some chose to return to Hungary immediately, or after a tour of the United States and were publicised by communist propaganda. Others chose to stay in the West, and were publicised by Free World propaganda.

Harry Blutstein has made an entertaining and informative contribution to the history of the Cold War, and one of particular interest to Australians, with this history a colourful episode.


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