It was called “Blood in the Water,” the most famous water polo match of all-time. Hungary vs. the USSR, Dec. 6, 1956, at the Melbourne Olympics. A month earlier, Soviet tanks had rumbled into Budapest and squelched Hungary’s rebellion over being occupied by the original Big Red Machine. Squelched it big time. With bombs and missiles.
Training in the mountains overlooking Budapest, the Hungarian water polo team watched their capital city burn. When the iron fist came down in those days, it came down hard.
A month later, Hungary was leading the USSR 4-0 when a water poloist named Valentin Prokopov flew out of the deep end like a marlin and punched Hungary’s star forward Ervin Zador in the face. Blood streamed into the pool. Angry Hungarians streamed onto the deck in search of retribution. And harpoons.
The game was called and Hungary went on to win its fourth gold medal in water polo. Hungary remained under Communist rule until 1988. Zador defected, and went on to coach Mark Spitz. The Gabor sisters, already in the United States, continued to make movies and collect husbands.
A water polo match was played in Las Vegas on Tuesday morning with much less vitriol. It featured the U.S. women’s national team, which will be leaving in a couple weeks for the Summer Games in London, and cast members of the Cirque du Soleil show “O.”
There would be no blood in the water at seashell-shaped “O” Theater pool in Bellagio. But late in the game, a gentle rain began to fall. Indoors. Part of the show in “O,” this caused the Olympians, who train at a municipal pool in Southern California near the Los Alamitos racetrack, to break into great fits of joy and laughter.
There are eight former Olympians in the cast of “O” but most are synchronized swimmers. So when Tumua Anae, the U.S. goalie, left her crease unguarded to cavort in the mist with her teammates, Team “O” pretty much failed to capitalize. A shot by one of the synchronized swimmers fluttered harmlessly over the empty net and into the orchestra pit.
The Olympians were the star attractions but seemed to be as much in awe of the “O” performers as the “O” performers were of them – and with good reason. It costs $98.50 for a restricted-view seat to see “O”; $155 to watch from behind the goal – er, orchestra.
To witness a women’s water polo match from London, you’ll probably have to stay up late for highlights on the Bravo channel.
“We haven’t got to the Costas level yet,” U.S. team spokesman Greg Mescall said about the possibility of a water polo star joining Olympics host Bob Costas in the studio. “But we’re working on it.”
He’s right about that. In 2010, the women’s water polo team posed for the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s “body issue” sans swimming caps and swimming suits, thus confirming what a lot of guys already know: the front of the Wheaties box is vastly overrated.
Combining elements of competitive swimming, basketball, soccer and ice hockey with a bit of municipal swimming pool hijinx – if you splash water in an opponent’s face, it’ll cost you 20 seconds in the penalty area – water polo has been an Olympic sport since 1900.
Over the years, the United States has gotten pretty good at it.
In the past three Olympics, the U.S. women have won silver, bronze, silver – with world championships in the non-Olympic years of 2007 and 2009.
The U.S. team is ranked sixth – based on its showing in last year’s world tournament – heading into London. But Heather Moody, the Rock Springs Rocket (the name of her hometown newspaper in Wyoming) and a two-time Olympic medalist, former captain and current assistant coach for the U.S. team, told me any of the eight qualifiers is capable of hearing its national anthem played.
“We have a pretty good chance to medal,” she said of a field that has Hungary, Spain, China and the United States in one group; Australia, Italy, Russia and host England in the other. Moody said it should be intense but blood in the water should be minimal: The nations that once formed Yugoslavia didn’t qualify this time.
Most Americans might not know the difference between Marco Polo and water polo. But this is an Olympic year. If the United States gets within splashing distance of the gold, a lot of Americans will be shouting “Water!” “Polo!” And should the United States win, perhaps team members will get to read the Top 10 list on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
With swimming caps and swimming suits on. Because in an Olympic year, nudity is not required of athletes in niche sports who strive for attention.
“It’s the one time when we are traveling through airports that people care who we are,” Moody said before the U.S. team toweled off and strolled through the Bellagio casino, once again blending into the background.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at
email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.