The Cold War Continues… in Sports

We’re one of those households that gets by without cable or satellite. Most of the time, that’s fine with me: Hulu, NetFlix, and digital broadcasting provide more than enough entertainment/information options. But that does mean that I’m missing out on the first of two terrific sporting events to happen in Europe this summer. The London Olympics are several weeks away, but even that’s easy to forget when the Euro 2012 soccer tournament is underway.

In some respects, the European championship is even better than the World Cup, since (as several commentators more astute than I have pointed out) almost all of the sixteen entrants are legitimately good squads with more than an outside chance at going deep into the tournament. (Sorry, Ireland.) And because it’s narrowed to a single continent and has groups set up such that neighboring countries might play each other, you get all sorts of match-ups carrying significant political-cultural-ethnic-historical implications transcending the actual athletic contest.

Polish Fans at Euro 2012
Polish fans after the opening match of Euro 2012 – Creative Commons (Martyna Marcinkowska)

That was the case Tuesday when host Poland played Russia, pulling out an unexpected 1-1 draw. The result meant that Poland could still advance to the knock-out rounds, but media attention focused instead on the violent pre-match clashes between Russian and Polish hooligans (or “ultras”) that left up to 24 people injured and resulted in over 180 arrests. (For a separate bout of fan violence that took place during Russia’s opening match against the Czech Republic, Europe’s governing body for soccer fining the Russian Football Union the equivalent of $150,000 and issued a suspended penalty that, should similar violence happen again, would make it harder for the Russian side to qualify for Euro 2016.)

The players and coaches themselves tried to cast the match as “just football,” but fans and media had a hard time detaching the contest from the countries’ shared history. Some quick background:

  • The independent kingdom of Poland disappeared in the late 18th century, partitioned by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a provincial capital in the tsars’ empire.
  • The Poles received independence after the tsarist collapse during World War I, only to find themselves at war with the Bolsheviks, whose forces reached the gates of Warsaw before being pushed back in the “Miracle of Vistula.”
  • Then in August 1939, the Soviet Union cut a deal with Nazi Germany: Stalin did nothing to stop Hitler from invading on September 1st, then sent the Red Army across Poland’s eastern border sixteen days later and returned eastern Poland to Russian control.
  • In 1940 the Soviets secretly murdered over 20,000 Polish military officers, policemen, and intellectuals, a massacre that the Nazis uncovered and publicized in 1943, to Soviet denials and Anglo-American embarrassment.
  • Stalin then engineered a Communist takeover of Poland as World War II ended, helping to escalate tensions with the West and bring about the Cold War.
  • Poland remained a Soviet satellite until 1989 (with war nearly breaking out after Polish Communists sought semi-autonomy in 1953, then the Soviets again threatening to send in tanks during the rise of the Solidarity movement in 1980-1981).

Some Polish newspapers likened Tuesday’s match to a sequel to the 1920 battle outside Warsaw (and Photoshopped an image of the Polish coach to have him wearing a general’s uniform); during the Russia-Czech Republic match some Russian hooligans apparently unfurled flags showing Poland as part of a renewed Russian Empire.

But the Russia-Poland tilt paled in comparison to two others that pitted Russian/Soviet teams against the national teams of countries then or previously within Moscow’s power:

Czech Republic 1, Russia 0 – 1998 Winter Olympics – Men’s Ice Hockey Gold Medal Match

Some more history: not long after Stalin forced Czechoslovakia’s elected government to decline Marshall Plan aid, Communists seized power in 1948, with the son of the country’s founder either committing suicide in despair or being pushed out a window (depending on which version of the story you prefer); an attempt to liberalize Communism (“socialism with a human face”) in 1968 prompted the Soviets and other Warsaw Pact countries to invade that August, killing civilians in the streets of Prague. While Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” brought anti-Communists to power in December 1989 (with the Czechs and Slovaks going their separate ways in 1993), the animosity with the Russians remained.

Jaromir Jagr, 2008
Jaromir Jagr in 2008, ten years after the Czech Olympic victory over Russia – Creative Commons (Michael Miller)

Coincidentally, the Czechoslovakian hockey team had defeated the heavily favored Soviets 5-4 during the 1968 Winter Olympics (the score showed up in Prague as anti-Soviet graffiti later in that tumultuous year), then twice during the World Championships the following year. Fast-forward to 1998 in Nagano, Japan, when NHL pros took part in the Winter Olympics for the first time. For the Czechs, that meant the addition to their roster of star forward Jaromir Jagr, whose grandfather had been imprisoned in 1948 for protesting the collectivization of his farm and then died in 1968 before the Soviets invaded. Born four years later, Jagr famously grew up carrying a picture of the fervently anti-Communist Ronald Reagan in his schoolbook, and wore the number 68 on his jersey. (Much of this came out in a Sports Illustrated profile published before Jagr’s third NHL season began in 1992.)

While the Czechs lost to the Russians in the first round, they earned a second crack and a shot at the gold medal by surviving a shootout against Canada in the semifinals. Czech goalie Dominik Hasek continued his stellar play by shutting out the Russians, and defenseman Petr Svoboda scored the only goal with just twelve minutes left in regulation. (It was a remarkably symbolic coincidence: not only had Svoboda defected in 1984, but he shared a surname with the man who was president of Czechoslovakia in 1968, a name that means “freedom” in Czech.) As the Czech broadcaster who called the Olympic final recalled in a 2010 New York Times article, “The whole country was crazy… Half a million people were watching in Old Town Square in Prague, TV ratings were so high. Now whenever anyone talks about sports success in our country, in soccer and volleyball and basketball, they say, ‘We are living our Nagano.'”

Hungary 4, Soviet Union 0 – 1956 Summer Olympics – Water Polo Semi-Final

Ervin Zador at the "Blood in the Water" match
Wikimedia

Known as the “Blood in the Water” match because numerous altercations between players on the two teams (three Soviets and two Hungarians were ejected by the referee) culminated in Soviet Valentin Prokopov punching young Hungarian star Ervin Zador, causing a gash that forced Zador (who had scored two of his team’s four goals) to withdraw and the decidedly anti-Soviet crowd to riot. Police escorted the Soviet players to their locker room and the game was declared over, with the Hungarians moving on to the gold medal match; Zador was unable to play, but his team nonetheless defeated Yugoslavia, 2-1.

Why the bad blood? Just a month before the Hungarians and Soviets entered the pool, Soviet forces had crushed a democratic revolution in Budapest, with hundreds of Hungarians dying and thousands being arrested. (Many more fled the country before the border closed — the opening of that border over three decades later would indirectly lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall.) Three countries boycotted the Olympics in protest.

The Hungarian team were in transit to Australia as the Soviet invasion transpired, and only realized the extent of the violence after arriving. They decided take out their country’s frustrations on the Soviet team, not only playing physically but turning one element of Soviet imperialism against their rivals. Recalled Zador in a 2011 interview:

From the age of 10, I took more Russian than Hungarian. So you can imagine, by the age of 21, I had enough Russian to do anything – it was verbal on our end, hoping that they would react physically.

After watching the gold medal match in civilian clothes, Zador joined half of his country’s Olympic delegation in defecting. He emigrated to California and went on to coach American swimming star Mark Spitz — who narrated a 2006 documentary about the Blood in the Water match. It also inspired a feature film that year, Children of Glory, which recreated the match in this way:


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